How Do Smell, Color Affect Worker Performance?

Say your employment essentially involves "thinking for a living" in a field such as consulting, accounting, publishing, HR, government, IT, R&D or insurance. The list could go on and on, because these days most of us work in what under the broadest definition would be considered the service industry. We don’t so much supply things as ideas. 

All of us engaged in this type of employment still need a place to work, since thinking has to happen somewhere. Instead of a factory, we go to an office; instead of a workbench, we have a desk; and instead of lathes and presses, we use computers. 

Our work surroundings amount to more than this, however. As London-based support services supplier Interserve points outs in its new report Decoding the Work Experience: How the Working Environment Shapes Views, Behaviors and Performance, "organizations may put dozens of systems, processes and technologies in place to help these knowledge workers do their job. Ultimately, however, their performance comes down to one thing: their ability to think and to process information." 

And that performance, according to Interserve’s research, is very dependent on the environment within which thinking gets done: "Workplace professionals must recognize that the environments they create and manage have a clear and direct influence on organizational performance. From the smallest tweak to a wholesale redesign of layout and functionality, every change has an impact. By understanding this link, workplace professionals can use the working environment as a tool for improving productivity and facilitating organizational change." 

Which may seem pretty self-evident—anyone will think and work better in a well-lit, well-furnished office than in a broom closet in the basement—but there are subtleties to the relationship between environment and work that aren’t necessarily so obvious. 

Take smell, for example. 

According to Interserve, "certain smells are known to affect physical, emotional and mental health and, in some cases, to directly impact cognitive performance. Studies have shown that scents such as rosemary and peppermint can improve memory and attention, while jasmine and lavender have a relaxing effect," and the smell of fresh-baked bread is particularly calming apparently. 

While "the widespread delivery of a particular scent in a communal working environment has practical challenges," Interserve admits, "in breakout areas designed for specific purposes (networking, brainstorming, relaxing, etc.) certain scents could be used to support cognitive performance." 

Certain colors are also more emotionally appealing—blue or "warm" colors, for example—and LED lighting improves "alertness and the ability to process information compared to standard fixtures." Less surprisingly, "the human voice has been proven to be one of the most distracting forms of noise, particularly when only part of a conversation can be heard." 

More subtly, "working environments that reflect openness and transparency—for example, glass-walled meeting rooms and boundaryless team areas—play a role in demonstrating [employer] trust," which "might translate into engagement and higher levels of employee retention." 

Or to badly paraphrase a line from the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams: "If you design it right, they will stay."

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