The Problem with the Cold, Wrong Temperature and How to Fix It

By Shantanu Mohan

December 11, 2017

Everyone works best at their own temperature. Everything from gender to BMI to level of hydration can affect our bodies’ ability to keep us in homeostasis, and everyone has several stories about when their office building’s temperature dipped in precisely the wrong direction. But this presents a very clear problem with no clear solution: how can you strike a balance between different temperature preferences, as well as operation norms? First, it’s important to look into the scope of the problem:

How much does the wrong temperature impact work?

Different studies show different results, but they’re all negative. Whether it’s through a Cornell University study from 2004 that measured the effects of a temperature decrease on typing rates and accuracy or a 2015 study that took a closer look at how women’s metabolic rates should have a say in the office temperature, the overall conclusion is that work slows when the temperature goes down, and raising the temperature even a nudge is the right move. In the 2004 study, the workers’ error rate rose 15% when the temperature decreased from 77 degrees Fahrenheit to 68, and their typing rate decreased, too.

This all has measurable ramifications on profitability: when the work rate slows, companies are getting less value per hour and less value per dollar on wages. While going straight to the cold, hard facts about money may seem a bit cold-hearted, it matters if you’re arguing for policy change in large corporations.

How much does the wrong temperature affect productivity?

There’s a difference between work and productivity in all jobs. Throwing raw effort and time at a task may get it completed (with some degree of error due to the wrong environment), but it’s even more important for your employees to be productive instead of just hard-working; the bottom line for companies is about results, not hard work.

But temperature also impacts people’s ability to think creatively and form social connections, which is exactly what you need when employees are working on collaborative projects and tasks that rely on critical thinking like audits, major contracts, and development projects on the cusp of a deadline. Experimental subjects used less precise language and formed fewer social connections when in the low 60s than in the 70s.

What can you do to solve the problem?

Whether you have an office full of workers that just need to produce raw information without creative components or you need your employees to work together and solve problems, the wrong temperature gets in the way (and in many contexts with younger or female employees, the wrong temperature is the colder one). But several things can impede you from changing your office’s temperature. It could be constraints in your lease, office protocol, or an issue of majority rule. The perennial argument of ‘just wear a sweater’ also plays a factor, so here’s what you can do:

1) Promote the use of huddle rooms and meeting spaces for collaborative projects.

If you have an open office layout where the standard 68 degrees Fahrenheit temperature is non-negotiable, find warmer ground when you need it most. Small rooms and offices can be temperature controlled with heaters and they also tend to be less drafty. They also promote more honest communication, so all of the factors combine for more collaboration, productivity, critical thinking, and results.

2) Make sure your office has carpeted flooring or rugs.

Even if carpets can’t control the temperature, they can help mitigate a lot of factors that make cold temperatures worse. Many people dismiss carpets as surfaces that suck in pollutants, allergens, and dirt, and that’s precisely right: they pull a lot of stuff out of the air so it doesn’t keep cycling through a drafty system. Cold hurts concentration even when it doesn’t bring germs with it, but it often does in tiled open offices.

3) Relax the dress code.

Many tech companies popularized the trend of casual work clothes, and it’s a great way to increase employee versatility. Professional female clothing is notoriously thin and non-insulative, and even men’s jacket and sweater options become cost-prohibitive if they have to stay formal. Even if you can’t bring the whole temperature up to a more comfortable setting, giving your employees the ability to dress for warmth instead of just appearance (especially when they aren’t client-facing) makes having to wear a sweater a lot more forgivable.

As more and more studies displace workplace norms and encourage different modes of operation — whether it’s telecommuting, standing desks, or more temperature customization — it’s becoming easier to create a better work environment. Go to WorkSocial for more ideas and information here.

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