Lavender fields are coming to a ventilation duct near your desk. Anna Jones inhales
What does work smell like? Lemon grass, geranium, freshly minted money or a combination of body odour, overpowering aftershave, cigarette smoke and general fustiness? For many of us, it is the latter, but some companies are beginning to investigate the use of pleasant corporate smells to encourage employees to work harder.

While it may sound like an Orwellian nightmare, it is a reality in Japan. There, companies are using the air-conditioning system to pump a range of aromas around the workplace which are believed to improve productivity, keep staff alert and stimulate them intellectually.

A recent survey by the recruitment specialists Reed Personnel Services found that 40 per cent of British employers questioned supported the idea.

There is no doubt that smell is a very powerful sense. Irene Inskip, a consultant at the branding company CLK, said: "Smell is very evocative but until now it has been largely overlooked by companies. I'm sure that everyone would rather be on the receiving end of a fresh, green ozone smell than a slightly sweaty odour."

Although they may be oblivious to it, customers already receive large doses of corporate scents on the high street. A host of supermarkets, retailers, banks, hotels and nightclubs use aromas to relax or stimulate customers or to mask other more unpleasant smells. Travel agents have experimented with coconut oil, car manufacturers have tried leather scents and banks and building societies have introduced a "sea breeze" aroma.

Woolworths introduced its own Christmas smell last December - a heady mix of pumpkin and thyme. Superdrug uses a variety of smells including musk and "baby" in its stores. For Valentine's Day, it also introduced a rather cloying chocolate smell. A Superdrug spokeswoman said: "Chocolate is associated with love and we thought we would try it out. It's a bit of fun but it might get people in the mood for romance."

The scents are manufactured and marketed by BOC Gases, which has developed a technique for pumping aromas from a gas canister into any air-conditioning system. The system is relatively cheap to install and run at around pounds 2,000 a year.

However, Chris McGolpin, business development director says that BOC Gases makes no claims for the effects of these scents. "We don't say if you use this, it will make people work harder or shop more but we do say it will make the retail or work environment more pleasant."

So what is it like to work in an environment that has introduced its own corporate smell? Staff at Superdrug said that the chocolate smell was "too heady, too chocolatey and too overpowering" on the first day it was tested. After adjustment, it was unanimously voted as "very pleasant", although one assistant said, "If you are working in it all day, you just don't notice it after the first five minutes."

While the companies that have already installed corporate scents seem happy with results, others are not so sure. The Reed survey of 205 British companies found that although 40 per cent supported the use of smells in the workplace, 29 per cent were violently opposed.

James Reed, chief executive of Reed Personnel Services, said some workers were shocked by the suggestion of their employers adding odours to the atmosphere. Others did not like the thought of employers controlling anything, despite the fact that they already control heating and lighting.

Simon Avison, a director of New Solutions, a firm of marketing consultants which has researched corporate smells, said lavender could be introduced if the staff were stressed. Similarly, bergamot could act as a stimulant on a Monday morning. However, he said: "In Britain, we enjoy the waft of perfumes in department stores but we do not respond so positively to unsubtle attempts to generate specific odours where they would not naturally occur. If certain smells can improve productivity or a sense of well-being, companies may have to introduce them almost subliminally."

But Mr Avison believes the situation may change as people are increasingly choosing scented candles and aromatherapy products in their homes to induce different moods. He added: "At a time when the productivity and motivation of each individual employee is so crucial to maintaining the competitive edge of UK business, this is certainly an area which employers should seriously examine".