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OK, So The Thermostat is Sexist. What Can You Do About It?

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This is a case of the science backing up something we intuitively know.

In a study published in the journal Plos One titled ‘Battle for the thermostat: Gender and the effect of temperature on cognitive performance‘, researchers at USC and the WZB Berlin Social Science Center analyzed the performance of 543 women and men in math, verbal, and cognitive reflection tasks at a range of environmental temperatures.

The results may not surprise you – women generally performed better at higher temperatures, with the reverse effect being observed for men. And it seems the disadvantage to women from cold was disproportionate to that experienced by men from heat.

I’ll skip the math and greek letters (and there is some math) – the conclusion is right there in the study’s abstract: ‘our findings suggest that gender mixed workplaces may be able to increase productivity by setting the thermostat higher than current standards.’ Pretty cut and dry.

And the effect size is pretty bonkers – a one-degree Celsius increase in ambient temperature was associated with a 1.76% increase in math questions answered correctly by women.

From the study – ‘to put the magnitude of these effects in perspective, the well-known, long-standing gap in performance between high school boys and girls on the math portion of the SAT is approximately 4%.’ According to the findings of this study, that gap could be accounted for by raising the thermostat 2.3 degrees Celsius!

What is the ‘Right’ Temperature for an Office Thermostat?

Of course, perceived temperature is subjective, where you sit in the office can have a huge effect (are you in the sun? In the draft?), etc. etc., so when deciding the right temperature for a workplace thermostat, it makes sense you might consider consulting OSHA for their opinion, right?

You want big government’s hands on your thermostat? Weird.

Well, since you asked, according to Section III, Chapter 2, Subsection V of the OSHA Technical Manual, “Recommendations for the Employer,” ‘recommendations for air treatment include … humidity control in the range of 20%-60%; and temperature control in the range of 68-76 F’. That’s about as wildly unhelpful as you would expect from a government thermostat suggestion, right?

OK, square one.

Another way of looking at this was proposed by Boris Kingma, et al in a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, Energy Consumption in Buildings and Female Thermal Demand. A little impersonal and clinical in the title, admittedly, perhaps even a bit chauvinistic, but the underlying rationale is interesting.

Kingma is here investigating how to optimize the energy consumption of offices by revisiting the calculations thermostat bureaucrats have always used to determine the correct setting.

In the abstract, he points out that existing indoor climate regulations date back to an outdated empirical comfort model from the 1960s, and that the ‘standard values for one of its primary variables—metabolic rate—are based on an average male, and may overestimate female metabolic rate by up to 35%’.

Not wrongly, but a bit clinically again, he concludes ‘this may cause buildings to be intrinsically non-energy-efficient in providing comfort to females.’ EG WOMEN ARE COLD AT WORK. We already knew that.

The original title of this photo was ‘Angry businesswoman having cold at office’

OK – spicy take, Boris, but what do we set the thermostat to? Everybody in the office is watching me read this and it’s getting heated.

Well, unfortunately, (and spoiler alert here), Boris says ‘more research is needed’. Classic researcher.

Believe me, nobody is more disappointed than I am – I paid for access to that study, and I read all the way to the end. The closest thing we get to a hint is in the closing paragraph: ‘the main points here are that thermal comfort models need to adjust the current metabolic standard by including the actual values for females.’ Great.

How to Get It Turnt(ed) Up

OK, so the science is pretty conclusive and we’re far from the first to report on these findings. It’s obvious that, on the whole, many mixed-gender office settings are running cold, to their own detriment. Women are too cold at work and it’s probably having a negative effect on their output, and thus on the team at large.

So what do we do about it?

First, we have to acknowledge that there is no ‘one temperature to rule them all’, no Goldilocks temperature – nothing could possibly make everybody happy. That means slankets, snuggies, blankets, work sweaters, desk fans, and those reprehensible athleisure poly-mesh oxford shirts are probably here to stay.

But a solid measure for many offices would be to introduce a sense of agency on the part of the staff. According to a survey conducted by Software Advice, most respondents said greater control over the temperature would boost their morale. Given that it’s a norm for office thermostats to be controlled by administration, hidden, or enclosed in a tamper-proof case, and that some thermostats are even dummies to begin with, any measure of input would be an improvement.

Naturally, there are enterprise solutions on offer, many of which, like Siemens-owned Comfy, focus on a smartphone-based ‘voting’ model that hopes to find a happy medium (mean? median? machine learning?) through the wisdom of the crowds. From what little we know of the power of placebo and human psychology, just the act of acting alone can help make you feel better, a bit like the dummy crosswalk buttons at intersections, or shouting into a pillow every morning before work.

This photo was originally titled ‘Man suffers from heat in the office or at home’

Women, or Anybody Who is Too Cold — here’s some evidence you can take to the office managers / facilities administrators / faceless functionaries / plutocrats calling the shots on the office Nest account:

• In a Cornell study entitled ‘Thermal Effects on Office Productivity’ [Abstract], 9 female workers’ thermal environment conditions were monitored every 15 minutes for 16 consecutive work days alongside their typing rate and error rate. Weird metrics, granted, but productivity can be hard to quantify. The study found that when the temperature increased from 68 to 77 degrees, typing errors fell by 44 percent while typing output increased 150 percent. Imagine if half of the folks in the office were 150 percent more productive while being 44 percent less wrong!

• You could also helpfully point out that climate control costs money – an estimate by a team of Berkeley researchers put the energy savings of increasing the cooling thermostat from 72°F to 77°F at 29%. In an office of any size, that could represent a significant amount of money.

Or maybe meet your colleagues in the middle – work on changing office dress code or norms to allow men to wear less clothes in the summer months. Japan made a nationwide initiative to bring Hawaiian shirt Friday to every day of the summer, and they named it Super Cool Biz. Personally I think this could be a slam dunk cultural import with few to no changes.

WOMEN ARE COLD AT WORK.

Men, or Anybody Who is Too Hot — here’s what you can do to help make the office thermal environment more equitable without being an unacceptable sweat-monster:

• As above, lobby for less restrictive office dress codes (if applicable). Assuming your gams are up to it, do as the Brits and Aussies and Kiwis do and bring some (tasteful) shorts to work. If you need backup, here’s UK GQ with some credentialed stylists saying “yes,” “maybe,” and also “don’t” to shorts at work.

• Skip the tie – as we’ll explain in a forthcoming article, it’s making you stupid, anyway. (Clickbaity, right?)

• Try out this immensely normcore Japanese fan jacket, which puff up nicely and sports a high-pitched whine that passive-aggressively announces to all around that you are keeping your heat problems to yourself.

Kuchofuku ‘air-conditioned’ jacket

• Put a fan on your desk.

Other Considerations

Especially in the extreme seasons, temperature may be front of mind when you’re thinking about how your environment impacts your focus and productivity, but other environmental factors may be just as influential while far more subtle.

Stay tuned for upcoming articles on circadian lighting, indoor air quality, and more – subscribe in the footer to be notified when we post new pieces like this, and tell a friend, won’t you?

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