How temperature affects office productivity

22 June 2017

Staff clutching hot water bottles, the challenge of pairing flip flops with suits, fight for desk fans - but problems of workplace temperature aren't just a distraction, they're damaging for productivity.

First, a little game of workplace bingo! A point for each one you regularly hear:

"It's freezing in here."

"It's boiling in here."

"Does anyone mind if I open the window?"

"Does anyone mind if I close the window?"

A moan about the temperature at work is as traditional as bringing biscuits from a holiday or the queue for the office microwave.  But there are wider problems at play and the temperature of the room can seriously impact employee productivity.

Catering for everyone's needs

When you think about it, adjusting the temperature to suit 5, 10, 50 or 100 people in an enclosed environment is a near-impossible task.

There are, however, some guidelines.  For decades, the received wisdom was that optimum office temperature for the majority of workers was 21-23ºC (70-73ºF).  That line of thinking has become outdated as it was based on a majority-male office environment, typically wearing a suit jacket, shirt and tie.

Now that balance has shifted and workplaces have an equal spread of men and women.  And, all jokes aside, the temperature requirements of men and women differ greatly.

There are lots of reasons for that - such as female core temperature being higher and the body therefore used to being warmer.  Another principal reason is that women's metabolic rates are lower than men's and that women need their offices 3ºC (5.4ºF) warmer than men¹ because men have more heat-generating muscle cells.

Beyond the science

It may seem like idling away a few minutes but there is a genuine cost to the amount of time spent dealing with office temperature.

One survey calculated that men waste 6.4 minutes per day adjusting to indoor conditions - more than half an hour a week - whilst their female counterparts spent 8.5 minutes per day doing the same².

Full disclosure, the survey was performed on behalf of an air conditioning company - who may well have a vested interest in making people consider adjusting their working environment.  But their stat that 80% of office workers complain about their office temperature does seem particularly damning.

Temperature an physical productivity

Various attempts have been made to nail down the link between temperature and productivity.  A 2010 study found that people in offices of 25.5ºC (78ºF) typed double the amount of words of those in offices in the low 20s Celsius (low 70s Fahrenheit)³ - and with fewer mistakes.  It's a finding that may ring true with women but sound incredible to men.

Common sense tells us that a warmer office breeds lethargy while a cold environment is distracting and most likely disheartening for a workforce.  Or perhaps the chilly air keeps workers alert!  The contradictions in the research reflect the mismatch in workers' idea of an ideal temperature.

Towards a solution

Technology aimed at micro-managing your working environment is one solution.  Comfy is an app that allows employees to directly control the temperature in their section of the office based on three commands: 'warm my space', 'cool my space' and 'I'm comfy'.

In the absence of clear, consistent data, the sense that you are looking after staff becomes key for employers - listening to complaints and suggestions, and then acting upon them.  That (and a cupboard full of fans and convection heaters) will help keep your workforce engaged and productive, whatever the weather.

¹Boris Kingma ad Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt. (2015). Energy consumption in buildings and female thermal demand.

²Andrew Sykes. (2014). How does the hot weather affect your business?

³Alan Hedge and Daniel Gaygen. 2010). Indoor Environment Conditions and Computer Work in an office

Source: Unum

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