Boost Work Productivity At The Push Of A (Thermostat) Button

January 27, 2019

office temperature
David Kirshbaum

Do you think a warmer or cooler office temperature is better for your work productivity? Scientists have been studying the subject for decades, and still, thermostat disputes persist across the country.

Currently the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no guidelines for workplace temperature beyond making sure people don't get frostbite or heat stroke. The agency does recommend a range of 68-76 degrees Fahrenheit, but that's broad enough to leave some people feeling the chill and others sweating buckets.

Everybody is different, and thermal comfort levels can be affected by gender, health conditions, body mass index, and many other factors. Temperatures around an office can also vary due to airflow, how close you are to windows and doors, placement of air vents, and more.

According to a recent study commissioned by CareerBuilder, nearly half the workforce say they're either freezing or burning up. Sometimes both things are going on at the same time in the same building!

Gender Differences In Thermal Comfort

One of the biggest factors in temperature comfort is gender. On average, women have slower metabolic rates and thus tend to feel colder than men. But standards have been set to men's comfort for decades.

According to one study, typical indoor climate guidelines stem from a model developed in the 1960s. This model leaned heavily on the average metabolic rate for men. Women have been left out of the equation, and a number of studies have shown that they tend to feel colder than men.

Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg reported in her 2013 book Lean In that CEO Mark Zuckerberg kept the office at just 59 degrees Fahrenheit, reportedly believing it helps focus and productivity. Available research data does not seem to support that idea, especially for women.

A 2012 research project showed that women are especially sensitive to cold temperatures at their hands and feet, which affects their overall comfort level. That's an issue in an office environment where bare hands are needed for computer work. And who wants to wear gloves all day anyway?

A 2004 Cornell University study of women found that their productivity soared at higher temperatures. The Cornell Chronicle reported on the findings by Professor Alan Hedge: "'At 77 degrees Fahrenheit, the workers were keyboarding 100 percent of the time with a 10 percent error rate, but at 68 degrees, their keying rate went down to 54 percent of the time with a 25 percent error rate,' Hedge says. 'Temperature is certainly a key variable that can impact performance.'"

And lest you think higher temperatures would be worse for men's comfort and work productivity, a 2017 Australian study that included both women and men found that up to a certain point, higher temperatures had no negative impact on performance.

The researchers explained their findings: "Many employers may fear that boosting the office temperature will make it too hot to think, and reduce worker productivity. However, our study shows that boosting the office temperature a little can save energy and keep office workers comfortable without sacrificing their cognitive performance."

Finding the Right Office Temperature Balance

After years of research, no one has been able to determine a single optimal temperature, but several studies support the idea of an optimal range.

Researchers from Florida and Australia recently found that there is a range of temperatures in which comfort and work productivity are maximized.

This validates findings from a 2006 analysis of studies by researchers at Helsinki University of Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They found an optimal temperature range of 21-24 degrees Celsius (69.8-75 degrees Fahrenheit), which closely aligned with their own previous findings.

This has implications not only for making people with different temperature needs comfortable, but also for reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. That's because thermostats can be set higher or lower within the comfort zone to reduce how hard the system has to work.

The Cornell study cited above also supports the idea of an optimal range rather than a perfect temperature. As the Cornell Chronicle stated, "Results showed an association between thermal conditions and productivity, which was highest when conditions fell in a thermal comfort zone and lowest when conditions fell below this zone." That last piece is important, as it indicates that too low a temperature may be worse for work productivity than too high a temperature.

Making Personal Temperature Adjustments

How is the temperature at your office? If you think it's fine, consider yourself lucky. If not, here are a few things you might try to improve the situation.

First, you could try to get the thermostat changed. This may not be easy — some offices have controllable thermostats, while others are controlled by remote operators.

Keep in mind that just because you're too hot or cold, that doesn't mean your co-workers feel the same. Thermostat changes affect everyone, for better or worse, and they can lead to hard feelings and even fights.

So consider polling your co-workers first to see how they feel about the office temperature before going for any office-wide changes.

Also consider what you can do at a personal level to be more comfortable.

If you're too hot, you could place a fan or two in your work area. You could wear lighter, more breathable clothing, or even invest in a personal air conditioner.

If you feel like you're working in a meat locker, try layering clothes and incorporating moisture-wicking layers like merino wool. You could also use a space heater, hand/foot warmers, or a heating pad on your chair.

However you feel temperature-wise, be sure to get up and move throughout the day to keep your blood circulating and regulating your body temperature.

Okay, your turn — how do you adapt to the temperature at your office? Share in the comments!

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