Cranking up the air conditioning at work freezes women’s productivity

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There’s nothing like cranking up the office A/C to make workers lose their cool.

Almost half of workers (46%) complain that their office is either too hot or too cold, according to a CareerBuilder survey, and 15% of employees admit that they’ve actually argued with a coworker about the office temperature. And now new research published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE finds that there’s a degree of seriousness to these office thermostat wars. In fact, women work much better when their workplace is warmer.

Researchers asked more than 500 college students to take math, verbal and cognitive reflection tests while the temperature in the room was set to between 61 and 91 degrees Fahrenheit, and studied how they answered questions at various temperatures. And women’s math and verbal test scores dropped when the room temperature dropped under 70 degrees — but math scores began rising 1.7% as the room warmed up. But men performed better in slightly cooler office spaces, and somewhat worse in warmer settings, although the temperature’s impact on male productivity was less pronounced than it was on women.

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Men may struggle when the office gets too hot, however.

“It’s been documented that women like warmer indoor temperatures than men, but the idea until now has been that it’s a matter of personal preference,” wrote study co-author Tom Chang from the University of South California in the report. “What we found is it’s not just whether you feel comfortable or not, but that your performance on things that matter — in math and verbal dimensions, and how hard you try — is affected by temperature.”

Indeed, women were more likely than men to fight with a colleague about workplace climate control in the CareerBuilder survey, with more than 1 in 5 (22%) of female employees getting heated about the temperature, compared to 7% of men. College Humor even riffed on the gender temperature gap in a viral 2016 video that dubbed air conditioned offices as “the women’s winter.” 

Sarah Johnson, the public relations director at digital business magazine, told MarketWatch that “passive-aggressive temperature wars” hit her small office every summer.

“One of our co founders will come in and set the thermostat down to 70 degrees, which to me is too cold,” said Johnson, 50. “So as soon as he leaves the room, I’ll tiptoe over to the thermostat … and I’ll put it right back on up to 77. And then he comes back and turns the temperature back down. And the game just keeps on going.”

It got so bad that when this founder teased her that the icy office “feels like Florida,” she used the company credit card to buy herself an $80 space heater on Amazon.

Freelance writer and author Laurie Endicott Thomas told MarketWatch that her fingers were literally blue while she was working in an office in the 90s. She had circulatory problems, which meant her extremities would get cold very easily, yet a coworker kept turning the temperature down.

“I put up with this until one day when my cold, blue, aching fingers could not move well enough for me to type. I checked the thermostat and found that my coworker had set it to 50 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Thomas, 57. “I told our boss that I could not work unless my office was at least 68 degrees, as OSHA recommends. They called the HVAC person to readjust some of the air vents, to balance the temperature in the building, and they told ‘Mr. Freeze’ that he was not allowed to touch the thermostat ever again.”

These are not isolated incidents, probably because nearly 1 in 5 (19%) workers confessed in the survey to secretly changing the thermostat during the summer like Johnson; 13% to cool things down, and 6% to warm the place up.

So what’s going on here? A 2015 report found that most office buildings set the base temperature to a comfort model developed in the 1960s that suits the resting metabolic rates of men; namely, a 40-year-old man weighing 154 pounds. But women’s metabolisms are generally slower than men’s, because they are smaller and have more body fat versus muscle. So the report suggested that this standard office heating and cooling formula might be overestimating the resting heat production of women by as much as 35%.

And differences in how men and women traditionally dress for work in the summer is also part of the problem. “In really corporate offices, the men are always going to be wearing three-piece suits — pants, a shirt and a jacket — so they are going to be warmer in the summer compared to a woman in sleeveless dress and maybe open-toed shoes,” explained Career Contessa founder Lauren McGoodwin.

A building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system is another culprit. The Brownstein Group public relations agency housed in a historic Philadelphia building has learned that the climate varies from office to office, even on the same floor. “It was 80 degrees and sunny in Philadelphia — and I had my space heater on high. But about 15 feet past my office, my colleague was using a fan to keep cool,” Laura Emanuel, director of public relations at Brownstein Group, told MarketWatch.

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Air conditioning often gets cranked up in offices during the summer. (shironosov/iStock)

And at the temperature war’s peak in her office, management had to tape the thermostat shut to keep the peace because so many workers were fiddling with it. “If you wanted to change it, you had to make your case to our CFO, who was the keeper of the thermostat!” Emanuel said.

Among those freezing at work, 13% told CareerBuilder that they use a space heater like Johnson, while 20% sip hot drinks, 19% wear a jacket all day and 6% swaddle themselves in blankets to warm up at their desks. And their colleagues sweating that it’s too hot will drink cool beverages (42%), dress in layers  (27%) or use a personal fan (26%).

But before the thermostat wars hit full steam, CareerBuilder and McGoodwin offered these suggestions to keeping your cool.

  • Don’t touch the thermostat.This passive-aggressive response will only cause problems. Try talking to your co-workers about it instead, and decide on a temperature that’s comfortable for everyone. “Strategize with your manager,” said McGoodwin. “Explain the constant back-and-forth with the temperature, and the time that is wasting, and explain, ‘I think we could minimize this if we came to a group decision about the temperature should be in the office.’”
  • Walk away. Soaking up some sun outside can warm you up if you’re freezing, and the exercise is a proven stress buster and mood booster that can soothe your temper and boost productivity.
  • Be flexible. If a particular time of day or a specific office space is too warm or too cold for productive work, talk to your manager about adjusting your work schedule, telecommuting or moving to a conference room for a portion of the day to work more comfortably.

This article was originally published in May 2018.