Employers Are One-Upping Each Other With Return-to-Office Perks

As the laptop class continues to resist the return to office, employers are resorting to unconventional tactics to lure them back, from custom scents and immersive soundscapes to beekeeping. In an even stranger sign of the times, real estate developers are following suit and trying to entice companies rethinking physical workspace to embrace the traditional model again.

Mr Green’s Office by MIA Design Studio in Vietnam. Photography by Hiroyuki Oki

Two years after Covid-19 took hold, employees are still fiercely resisting the C-suite’s demand to return to the pre-pandemic norm, no longer feeling beholden to outdated habits. Not everyone is pining for the ways of the Before Times—many firms have gone fully remote, with office occupancy in San Francisco at 22 percent and Manhattan’s double that, with those numbers expected to rise. The latter city is grappling with a massive budget shortfall in business and property taxes for that reason, and commercial real estate owners are clamoring for tenants in a competitive market. 

To lure them back, some real estate owners are seeking newfangled methods. Mirroring a time-honored tactic of luxury retailers and boutique hotels, commercial developers are infusing their spaces with beguiling fragrances in an effort to make antiseptic office buildings feel more comforting. It’s a strategy the hospitality industry knows well—these days it’s not uncommon for a hotel to develop its own distinct scent profile. 

Marriott has been employing aromas throughout all 30 of its Bonvoy properties for more than two decades. “Scent is part of creating these distinct sensory journeys to help distinguish each brand and create a memorable experience for every guest,” Matthew Boettcher, Marriott’s VP of brand operations, told the Commercial Observer. (Another Marriott flag, Edition Hotels, uses a custom scent crafted by Le Labo.) Air Aroma, a company that markets scents to corporations and whose clients include Resorts World in Las Vegas, says demand has increased as owners explore the power of fragrance on mood. Citrus, for example, supposedly improves energy, while lavender soothes the nerves.

“There’s this risk that introducing a scent with the best intentions [can] help enable concentration, to help create calm. If you have even a small percentage of folks who have a negative reaction, that would be problematic,” says Peter Miscovich, executive managing director for strategy and innovation at JLL. “We’re over the pandemic, but 400 to 500 people a day are still dying of Covid in this country. I have several HR folks still very concerned about congregating folks into densely packed offices. Introducing a fragrance may cause more complexity and challenge than good.”

Image courtesy Make Music Studio/Spatial

The C-suite is getting creative too. Some companies are testing “immersive sonic experiences,” with partners like Made Music Journey to make workspaces more palatable. To encourage focus, an ambient soundscape may use biophilic notes—think gentle ocean waves, distant birdsong, or a crackling campfire—that are scientifically proven to enhance cognitive function. Whether the rank and file consents to subliminal productivity boosters is another question. 

Olfactory and auditory enhancements are only two of the tactics employers are experimenting with to make the office more appealing. Tried-and-true amenities such as gourmet food, yoga classes, bike storage, golf simulators, and food trucks are being repurposed in the hope that some of the former plus-ups will become desirable once again. Playing to the millennial obsession with plants, employers are building “treehouse” lounges and mini-herb gardens to help bring the outdoors in.

Studies show that biophilic spaces yield increased cognition and productivity while lowering stress and anxiety. “The pandemic amplified everything,” George Blume, design director at Gensler, tells the New York Times. “Instead of biophilia being a fun little footnote, it became essential.” Some landlords are even resorting to on-site beekeeping and bird sanctuaries, hoping interaction with animals will placate digital nomads who may have grown used to working outside or walking to the park at lunch.

True to form, the tech world is going all out. Over at Google, which limped through three failed attempts to summon staffers back before establishing a mandatory three-day in-person work week, the braintrust has turned to one of pop culture’s reigning queens for reinforcements. The tech giant has notoriously wooed top talent to work long hours at its Silicon Valley campus with snazzy perks like massages and gourmet meals from top chefs; shortly after its mandatory return policy was announced, Google hired a marching band, installed photo booths, and hosted politicians to make the comeback feel celebratory. The cherry on top? An appearance by Lizzo, who staged a predictably uplifting concert to help ease workers back into their routine, though shouts of “propaganda!” could be heard from the audience.

Lizzo performing a return-to-office concert for Google employees. Photography by Emma Wong/via @_emwong_ on Instagram
All Stories