A Few Degrees Makes All the Difference

By Shantanu Mohan

November 7, 2017

Winter is upon us, and with it, the seasonal debate over office temperatures begins again. In fact, a staggering 80% of workers surveyed feel that their office temperature is uncomfortable. Unfortunately, indoor climate regulations are based on standards developed in the 1960’s, using the resting metabolic rate of the average male of the time.

Over the ensuing 50 years, not only has the average male body type changed (averaging an inch taller and 30 pounds heavier), but fashion has changed as well, with clothes becoming lighter-weight and less formal. And the workplace has been transformed by the increasing presence of women. It’s time to rethink the temperature standard.

Factors that affect apparent temperature

While personal comfort levels are highly individual, there are several factors that influence the thermal comfort of office workers:

  • Gender. On average, women have a warmer core temperature and colder extremities than men and hormonal birth control exaggerates this effect. A woman’s hands and feet are often several degrees cooler than her male counterpart. Also, women have a slower metabolic rate than men, contributing to an overall greater sensitivity to cold.
  • Clothing. Generally speaking, women tend to wear clothing that exposes more skin surface area than male office workers. The more formal the workplace, the more this discrepancy tends to hold true, with female employees often expected to wear dresses and skirts, and male employees often expected to wear pants and jackets.
  • Humidity. While humidity is not directly related to temperature, it impacts how temperature is perceived by the skin. High humidity makes heat feel hotter, while low humidity makes chill feel colder.

Reasons to adjust the office temperature

Recent studies have explored the consequences of increasing the average office temperature by a few degrees, and there are some compelling reasons to do so:

  • Increased productivity. A 2014 survey found that nearly a third of workers spend 10-30 minutes a day not working due to an uncomfortable temperature, and 6% spend more than a half hour a day unproductively for the same reason. At 68 degrees, Cornell researchers found that employees committed 44% more errors than at 77 degrees. Sustained uncomfortable temperatures not only have a negative effect on employee productivity and health but can also impact teamwork and collaboration.
  • Reduced energy costs. Office air-conditioning systems are often designed for the worst-case scenario of the office being fully staffed on the hottest day of the year, and some engineers add up to 20% more cooling on top of thatto be on the safe side. This results in uncomfortably cold offices in the height of summer when people are more likely to be wearing light clothing. Adjusting the thermostat can not only increase employee comfort but save 25-30% on cooling costs. The Department of Energy says that commercial buildings can save 3% on energy costs for every degree the thermostat is raised in summer and lowered in winter.
  • Adjust the placement of heat-emitting appliances. While employers can’t always adjust the temperature on demand or relocate thermostats for improved comfort, there are ways to make the readings more accurate. Avoid placing appliances with heaters or fans near thermostats, so they don’t influence the reading.

Unfortunately, office temperature will probably always be a source of dissatisfaction, not only due to the significant differences between individuals but because architects and designers tend to tuck thermostat sensors out of sight for aesthetic reasons. Putting temperature sensors above ceiling panels or inside enclosed areas gives inaccurate indicators for the actual comfort of people in the room.

We will probably always rely on office sweaters and throw blankets, desktop fans and personal humidifiers, but, with some care and attention, we can make the office more generally comfortable, increase productivity, and save energy at the same time. Contact us for more information on flexible, comfortable, workspaces.

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