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A Lemon Odor in the Office?
After Lunch a Whiff of Mint?
The Better to Help You Work
by Gary T. Marx
IN THE SAME WEEK that the U.S. Senate voted for a clean air bill, one of the world's leading cosmetics manufacturers announced that it was starting to market aromatic equipment aimed at increasing productivity in the workplace. That is to say, smells are to be pumped through air-conditioning and heating ducts.
For a decade, researchers at Shiseido, Co. Ltd. of Tokyo have tried to document that lavender and rose are calming, lemon and cypress stimulating, jasmine stress-reducing and mint capable of relieving drowsiness. In one controlled experiment, computer operators exposed to a light floral scent showed a productivity increase of 14 percent and made fewer errors than their counterparts in an odorless environment.
The company's promotional brochure suggests one menu: lemon scent in the morning to wake workers up; a light floral scent to aid concentration at mid-morning; an odorfree lunch, and wood, lemon and floral scents in the afternoon.
Shiseido anticipates a large market. Potential buyers include not only offices and factories, but hotels and shopping centers. A spokesman said that specially mixed aromas might one day "incite" customers to buy more.
It might incite other reactions as well. How for example, should this be viewed in the workplace?
The technology is attractive, if you take the traditional management view. When a Japanese company offers to share a technique for increasing productivity, we had best listen.
The company has a moral obligation to use any legal and effective means to increase productivity. Reducing stress may keep health costs down, and more alert employees will have fewer accidents. The workplace is management's property and there is ample precedent for engineering office features such as music and lighting. There are precedents in other areas such as venting bakery smells onto the sidewalk, and increasing the oxygen content in the air to gambling casinos to keep people awake. As long as workers are given formal notice, this should not be an issue of contention. And besides, those unhappy with the policy can choose to work somewhere else.
But wait a minute. Before such a system is adopted, questions must be answered about health and threshold impacts, effectiveness, the sharing of productivity gains and rights and responsibilities.
What happens to the health of workers whose air is altered in this fashion?
What about people with allergies? Will they be provided free gas masks --or simply told that for their own good they should seek other employment?
One of the ways that Legionnaire's Disease spreads is through air-conditioning systems. Will other diseases appear as a result of synergistic effects, perhaps as the scents mix with residue in the duct system or production chemicals in the workplace?
Will it really work? Given cultural variability in the interpretation of smells and an increasingly heterogeneous workforce. It seems naive to assume that smells will have a uniform impact.
What about desensitization and threshold affects? New smells and sounds quickly come to be taken for granted.
Will individuals develop an immunity through daily exposure? Will ever greater doses of the scent be required?
Might the system backfire and result in lowered productivity?
Apart from workers who may be made sick by a particular smell or demoralized because it recalls an unpleasant memory, will other workers rebel, seeing this as an unjustified manipulation and intrusion?
Will some employees be angered because they can no longer create their personal "olfactory environment" with a sachet of fragrant flowers on their desk? Will a new security problem be created as unpleasant odors, laughing gas, marijuana smoke or musk oil are introduced by pranksters or saboteurs?
If productivity really does go up, who will benefit?
Beyond increased profits, will it mean increased income for workers and reduced prices for consumers?
Apart from whatever symbolic meaning artificial smells may convey about the inauthenticity of our age, the technique does not stand alone. It must be seen as one of many emerging remotely-triggered, unseen technologies that also treat workers as objects to be engineered. Subliminal sounds and images and efforts to change behavior by diet additives are two examples.
Scent engineering raises similar issues. Pleasant and healthful scents are certainly preferable to their opposites.
If independent research can document positive results with no negative side effects, then aromatic engineering might be considered. But it must be done with the informed consent of employees, with their participation in its development and to their financial benefit.
With something as personal as smell, workers must have a choice. Those who don't wish to be exposed should be protected with full job rights. Anything less would leave a bad odor.
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