Is your office temperature right? Ensuring a more comfortable workplace is good for employees, and that’s good for the employer, too.
The Northern Hemisphere suffered record-breaking heat in the summer of 2022, and electricity usage soared to support air conditioning. This December, we saw a string of life-threatening storms and below-average temperatures. As we settle into winter, thermostat control will continue to be as big a gender battleground at the office as at many homes. In their 2015 study published in Nature Climate Change, scientists Boris Kingma and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt confirmed what women knew all along: Gender bias in setting workplace temperature reduces productivity, raises summer expenses, and harms the environment.
The “Right” Temperature
The formula for the standard office temperature was developed in the 1960s based on the metabolic resting rate of the average 40-year-old, 155-pound man. This overestimates the female metabolic rate of young adult women performing light office work by as much as 35%. Setting the temperature to 72 degrees Fahrenheit is about five degrees too cold for the average female. The temperature inside commercial buildings in the United States is often set as low as 68 degrees.
The result of what The New York Times calls The Great Arctic Office Conspiracy is half the workforce bundled up like Nanook of the North. An uncomfortable workplace is an unproductive workplace. Too-cold temperatures impair workers’ ability to concentrate and increase errors in tasks such as keystroking. Workers can become sick, reducing billable hour output. The fix is not to hire fewer females; the fix is to change the environment.
Air conditioning is expensive. Electric usage shoots up on the hottest days. The most extreme consequence can be area-wide power outages. When the power goes out, either the emergency generator kicks in or the office shuts down entirely. Outside the business environment, power outages disproportionately affect the unhealthy and the unhoused. On the hottest days, many municipalities urge citizens to raise the temperature on their thermostats to try to avoid disaster. Office managers, take note!
The title of the two male scientists’ study was “Energy Consumption in Buildings and Female Thermal Demand,” demonstrating the focus of their concern. They report, “Energy consumption of residential buildings and offices adds up to about 30% of total carbon dioxide emissions; and occupant behaviour [sic] contributes to 80% of the variation in energy consumption.” Even boiling water for tea to try to warm up uses a large amount of energy. Raising the office temperature in summer months helps combat climate change.
In some offices, women who dress in extra layers or use a space heater endure ridicule. Raynaud’s disease, also called Raynaud’s syndrome, is a reaction to cold or stress that can limit blood flow to extremities causing numbness. It affects women more than men. Limitations on employee efforts to stay warm could be an Americans with Disabilities Act infraction.
The first step is to start paying attention to this issue. Management can conspicuously allow, encourage, subsidize or even participate in employees’ efforts to control their comfort levels. Work environment loss prevention safety inspections should include attention to temperature levels, HVAC vent adjustment, and proper electrical wiring for auxiliary temperature control devices such as space heaters or desk fans.
Raising the temperature in the office to a compromise number will not solve the problem but can somewhat ameliorate it. Management studies show that demonstrating attention to employee concerns increases employee job satisfaction, even when management does nothing to fix the problem. Fiddling with the thermostat can be good for talent retention.
An unintended benefit of working from home arrangements is that workers presumably can adjust their temperature environment to suit their own needs — another reason to reconsider return-to-office mandates.
Ensuring a more comfortable workplace is good for employees, and that’s good for the employer, too.