Choosing a work-from-home scent can boost focus and productivity

Don’t bee stressed when you don’t have to bee.
Don’t bee stressed when you don’t have to bee.
Image: AP Photo/Claude Paris
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What does a workday smell like to you? In a typical office setting, the answer might involve the smoky scent of coffee grounds or a whiff of citrus-tinged disinfectant.

Otherwise, the goal is usually to create an odorless environment. It’s considered impolite to to douse oneself in Chanel No. 5, and lighting a scented candle is one way to become the office eccentric. Even the smell of microwave popcorn has its (insane!) detractors.

But working remotely in the wake of Covid-19 means being the master of your own olfactory universe—and spending accordingly. In the second quarter lasting from April to June, US candle sales were up 13% from the same period last year, according to market research firm NPD Group, in contrast to plunging sales for products like perfume, skincare, and makeup. Newly remote workers are experimenting with scented workspaces, and their potential to make hours with an Excel spreadsheet feel, or at least smell, more like a day at the beach.

The science of scent

Scent has a subconscious affect on everyone. “Even at extremely low levels, it’s affecting you,” says Olivia Jezler, a fragrance expert and CEO of strategy and consultancy firm Future of Smell. In a paper for a 2016 conference on human-computer interactions, Jezler and her co-authors describe an experiment in which vanilla- or lemon-scented modeling clay appeared to prompt participants to make rounder or spikier shapes.

Scent also has the power to help us focus or destress, says Mark Moss, head of the psychology department at Northumbria University in the UK, whose current research focuses on aroma’s impact on mood and cognition.

“Aromas can improve cognition by interacting with our brain chemistry,” Moss says. “There are compounds in the aromas of the essential oils of rosemary and sage, for example, that can potentially improve memory by being absorbed into the blood when we inhale the aroma, then being passed to the brain where they enhance the activity of a neurotransmitter (brain cell messenger) that is involved in memory.”

Aromas can also stimulate the area of our brain known as the limbic system, which affects our levels of arousal, making us relax or perk up according to the particular scent. To get the maximum effect, Moss advises using room scents intermittently rather than throughout the day.

Along with the worker-friendly powers of rosemary and sage, the scent of peppermint has been shown to help people concentrate and work more efficiently. And for lunch breaks or chilling out after work, Moss recommends lavender: “Research suggests that lavender can improve relaxation, and so work performance later is improved as the rest period is more effective.” Chamomile and lemon balm are also good options for winding down.

Scent as adventure and self-care

When the pandemic first hit, Mark Crames, CEO of Demeter Fragrance, expected customers to go for aromas that carried associations of safety and comfort, like lavender and baby powder. “It did not work out like I thought,” he says now.

Instead, Demeter—which offers a collection of more than 200 scents that can be mixed and matched—saw a surge in adventurous smells. Thunderstorm and “Pixie Dust” sales soared, along with fragrances meant to evoke destinations like Morocco and Thailand. Crames’s theory: Cooped up at home for months on end, people “are looking for a sensory escape. They’re bored, and they want a jolt.”

That hunger for sensory stimulation has tripled Demeter’s direct-to-consumer business, according to Crames, who is himself drawn to scents reminiscent of hiking. “I’m big on Thunderstorm,” he says. “I also like things like Mountain Laurel, Mountain Air, Blue Spruce.”

If you’re looking for more of a high-powered law firm ambiance, Crames recommends sharp wood scents: Sandalwood, Sequoia, Cypress. These kinds of finished fragrances “make me feel corporate,” he says. “As a result, those are the ones that make me feel focused and on top of my game.”

The unisex skincare and fragrance company Malin + Goetz has also seen candles selling “hand over fist” since the onset of the pandemic, according to co-founder Matthew Malin. The company is currently sold out of its three best-selling scents: Cannabis, Dark Rum, and Leather, though more are on the way.

Malin and his co-founder and partner Andrew Goetz have been holed up in their Hudson Valley home with their rescue pug, Mr. Greenberg. “We vacillate between moments of productivity and moments of complete ennui,” says Goetz. For the workday, both prefer muted scents like Vetiver: “really soft and green, and very sophisticated,” says Malin.

More powerful scents like cannabis, meanwhile, are their preferred way to mark the end of another day. “Lighting a candle is the new 5 o’clock cocktail hour,” says Goetz. “For a nominal amount of money, it’s a way to elevate an anxious time.”

Malin suggests that candles could even replace the “lipstick index,” the recessionary phenomenon in which lipstick sales go up as the economy falls, as women seek a small, affordable luxury even when they’re on a tight budget. Social distancing and masks mean that people don’t have much use for makeup right now. Candles, on the other hand, seem likely to remain a hot commodity.

How to choose your scent

A brief survey of strangers and friends alike suggests a few ways you can use a signature scent to elevate your day.

Candle and chill. Citrus scents are common workday favorites, making people feel calm, perky, and a little less like they are in the midst of a quarantine-induced existential crisis. (Nest’s grapefruit candle and deKor’s orangey Ojai candle got particular shoutouts.) For those with sensitive noses, Quartz colleague Noah Emrich is a fan of the Japanese brand Kohchosai Kosuga’s bamboo-scented incense, saying that it’s one of the few home fragrances he’s ever been able to handle: “I find most too strong/irritating.”

Candle as clock. The ritual of burning a candle or incense, and blowing it out, can also help bring structure to the day. “In an effort to develop a routine around working from home, I’ve gotten in the habit of lighting a candle when I start the work day,” reports Carolina Ferrara, a paralegal in Los Angeles. “It’s become a grounding and really calming component of my routine.” She reports finding eucalyptus scents particularly energizing, and is a fan of the aromatherapy line from Bath & Body Works, and the Golden Coast scent from P.F. Candle Co.

A scent for every stint. Having a variety of aromas on hand can help delineate different kinds of tasks within a day, even when they’re all happening in the same room. That’s been working for Brinton Parker, who works as a social and editorial manager for a tech company in San Francisco.

Parker has been doing remote therapy once per week. “To set a different tone in the middle of the weekday, I light a zen candle with a totally different scent (sea salt and sage),” she says. This, combined with the scent of peppermint tea she drinks during therapy calls, “helps me feel calm and ready to open up even if I’m in the same room where I’ve been taking business calls all morning.”

No smell like home. My Quartz colleague Nico Rivero, meanwhile, is using a workday scent to feel connected with his Florida hometown. “I went home to Miami for a couple of months and spent some time working on my mom’s porch next to her gardenia bush, which was very nice,” he says.

Now that he’s back in New York City, he’s lighting up the Miami Candle by the nostalgia-centric brand Homesick, which promises to do its very best impression of the tropical seaside city with base notes of coconut and patchouli and top notes including sea breeze. “It’s not quite the same as going for a walk and smelling jasmine coming from someone’s yard,” he says. “But it is a nice change of pace from the resting scent of my New York apartment, which is the fast-food smell of the Popeyes downstairs.”