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Office temperatures; its impossible to please everyone

Date: 10/07/2019

When it comes  to office politics, temperature can create a real divide with the battle lines often draw on the basis of gender.  Recent research suggests that the reason female coworkers may be complaining about the cold, while their male colleagues are perfectly comfortable, is biological. Further, research has shown that office temperatures can have a significant impact on the productivity of workers, depending on their sex.

To add insult to injury for women, most office thermostats have been created to suit males.  A study by the Nature Climate Change journal found that most office buildings set their temperature based on a formula that is decades old. This formula considers a range of factors when determining the optimum temperature including air temperature, air speed, vapour pressure and clothing insulation.

The problem lies in another factor that the formula takes into account – the resting metabolic rate. The resting metabolic rate is essentially how quickly we generate heat, and this varies between men and women. In the formula, this variable is based on the average resting metabolic rate of a 40 year old man, who weighs about 70kgs. At rest, men tend to expend more energy than women, and are therefore generally warmer.

This formula was devised in the 60s, when men dominated office-jobs. That is no longer the case, and a rework of the formula is needed to resolve the office thermostat battle. The scientists who published the recent study concluded that buildings need “to reduce gender-discriminating bias in thermal comfort”. 

Interestingly, the study also found that setting temperatures at slightly warmer levels would help fight global warming, because less energy is being used to constantly reduce office temperatures.

 The thermostat debate also goes beyond just comfort levels in the office, and can have a significant impact on productivity. In another study, the University of Southern California monitored over 500 students who undertook a number of different tests – a maths test, a verbal test and a cognitive reflection test – where the room was set at various temperatures from 16 to 32 degrees.

Perhaps not surprisingly to women around the world who are constantly piling on the layers of clothing in the office, women performed better on the maths and verbal tests in higher temperatures. However, the opposite was true for men who performed better when in the colder environment.

The difference in productivity, depending on temperature, was significantly greater for women than for men. In warmer temperatures, womens’ performance was considerably higher than the corresponding decrease in male performance at the same temperature. This difference, the researchers concluded, means that workplaces may be able to increase productivity by raising the thermostat a few notches.

In New Zealand, Worksafe recommends air conditioning units be set to between 19 - 24 degrees in the summer and 18 – 22 degrees in the winter. There are also Regulations that are relevant to this issue. The Health and Safety at Work (General Risk and Workplace Management) Regulations 2016, require that a person who is in control of a place of work must provide reasonable ventilation. They also require that workers carrying out work in extremes of heat and cold are able to do so without risk to health and safety.

These Regulations have been criticised for being too non-specific and difficult to enforce. The previous Health and Safety in Employment Act specified the facilities must be suitable with regards to factors such as humidity, temperature and ventilation which at least made temperature regulation a specific issue. 

Ultimately, disputes about office temperature are likely to continue because it is almost impossible to please everyone in this space.

However there does appear to be a compelling case to raise the temperature by a couple of degrees, as this has now been proven to increase productivity. It may help fight climate change as well.