Getting the temperature just right

Office thermostat woes can be a blow to productivity
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/30/2019

Complaining about the temperature at the office sometimes feels like a part-time job for many at my workplace. It’s either too hot or too cold, and rarely just right, and it’s a topic commonly discussed.

Part of the problem? It’s an imperfect science, judging by conversations with maintenance staff at our building. The location of a person’s desk relative to heating or cooling vents, hallways and windows can all make a difference — along with a person’s internal temperature.

Sitting in a corner with windows for walls, my cubicle has always been cooler. And I have managed to ward off the chill with sweaters, scarves or a floor heater (which, sadly, had to be removed after a health and safety inspection).

I don’t like to complain as I really like the location, but it would be nice to comfortably wear summer attire in the summer, and avoid wearing a wool scarf during the winter.

So, what’s the best temperature for comfort? The optimum is 24.5 C, with an acceptable range between 23 C to 26 C, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, citing 2018 recommendations from the Canadian Standards Association.

For winter, the optimum temperature is 22 C, with an acceptable range of 20 C to 23.5 C.

But the challenge of finding the optimal temperature is widespread — and differs considerably by gender.

A 2015 survey out of the United Kingdom, for example, found 29 per cent of workers felt they lost between 10 and 30 minutes each workday not working due to an uncomfortable office temperature.

Seventy per cent of women (and 44 per cent of men) said they bring in additional clothing while 50 per cent of women (and 28 per cent of men) “resorted to excessive cups of tea,” found the survey of 2,000 people by HVAC specialists Andrew-Sykes.

That’s backed up by a 2018 survey by Career Builder of 1,012 American workers that found 46 per cent felt their office was either too hot or too cold, while 15 per cent have argued with a co-worker about the temperature.

In that same vein, twice as many women as men in the survey said they are too cold.

Part of the problem? Apparently, the typical thermostat was set at a time when men made up the majority of the workforce — and their metabolic rate runs higher than women.

And it’s not just about comfort. Back in 2004, a small study out of Cornell University found women were significantly more productive, making fewer errors and working more quickly, when their office was kept at a warmer temperature. The optimal temperature? 25 C.

Recently, the topic made headlines yet again when a study in PLOS One — a scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science in San Francisco — also found colder temperatures can make women less productive:

“At higher temperatures, women perform better on math and verbal task(s) while the reverse effect is observed for men. The increase in female performance in response to higher temperatures is significantly larger and more precisely estimated than the corresponding decrease in male performance. In contrast to math and verbal tasks, temperature has no impact on a measure of cognitive reflection for either gender.”

So, if you’re looking for better results, set the thermostat “higher than current standards.”

While HR and management may be tempted to consider complaints about the heat or cold as more of a maintenance issue, it’s hard to ignore the findings around reduced productivity. This is an area where Canada has struggled for years, as worker output per hours worked has never been our strong point.

So maybe this is a good opportunity for leaders to step up. How? While we can’t be expected to adjust the thermostat every time an employee grumbles, we can at least listen, express concern and offer suggestions, such as working from home one or two days a week, or offering an alternate location at work.

Providing free coffee or tea is always a popular perk, even for those not challenged by thermal discomfort.

Of course, there’s also the option of giving out fleece jackets with the company logo on them, as part of an employer branding exercise... but that might not go over so well.

Canada does not have an easy climate — we all know that, from coast to coast — and it seems to be getting more difficult with each season. While it’s not a simple issue to control, surely we can make some attempts to improve people’s comfort — and productivity — indoors.

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