Thermostat Wars: How to Stop Freezing Productivity and Bringing Workers to a Boil

August 5, 2015 Lynette Silva Heelan

by Lynette Silva

Recognize This! – Office climate control has a great deal to do with productivity, happiness, and how we WorkHuman.

Have you ever walked into a company and noticed that the person in the front desk is hunched over, wearing three sweaters, and greets you with an ice-cold handshake – in August? According to a 2009 study, employees’ top complaint is being cold at work—including during the summer.

Do you see sweaters left on the backs of chairs or hear the hum of space heaters beneath people’s desks? Take a quick look around you and tell me in comments – how many sweaters do you count on the back of chairs? (At a quick glance around my own area, I see 5 sweaters, jackets or wraps out of 8 chairs.)

These cold offices are evidence of a brewing Thermostat War. Some employees are freezing while others are sweltering. Some could care less. But the very literal work environment is a big part of how we WorkHuman. When you are cold, you leave your desk in search of hot beverages; you’re lonely or view coworkers around you as distant; and you don’t recognize others’ work because you are physically and psychologically withdrawn.

The idea of WorkHuman recognizes the humanity in employees. Employees are not robots. They need nourishment (coffee), friends (amiable coworkers), encouragement (recognition), and, yes, climate control (comfortable temperatures). Productivity, Money, and the Environment.

According to a Cornell University study, employees made 44% more mistakes when room temperature was 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) or less. (Optimal temperature was determined to be 77 degrees Fahrenheit/25 degrees Celsius.)

Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, noted when humans are in work environments below 70 degrees they are 4 to 10 percent less productive. Companies may think they are saving money keeping temperatures low, but US buildings alone could save $40 billion over 7 years if they worked on energy efficiency.

Psychological effects Sally Augustin, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist and principal at Design With Science, says, “Being in a space at a particular temperature is one of those situations where reality can take a back seat to perceptions of reality.” When it’s cold you can think your employer doesn’t care about your basic human needs—or you can believe your employer to be sexist or ageist.

You can resent coworkers who turn the thermostat down or don’t notice the cold. You can feel lack of control over your environment. Clients can perceive your company as callous when their first impression of your office is seeing a greeter at the front desk suffering in a parka.

How to create a cease fire in the thermostat war

  1. Change up the wardrobe
    • Male managers, in particular, have power in this area, as they set the uniform for other males in the office. Experiment with wearing short sleeves instead of a suit jacket. Japan’s Cool Biz campaign has been employing this social experiment since 2005.
  2. Support your peers
    • Ask a nearby, shivering coworker if they’d like a coffee or tea on your way to the kitchen. Just do this once—not every time. It takes 20 seconds for the question and 20 seconds to pour a second cup of coffee. When you bring your coworker the hot beverage, you’ve recognized their humanity, brought them out of their shell, and made a friend and collaborator for future projects.
  3. Take control of the office
    • Change the office temperature. The standard office temperature is outdated. The model was devised for men’s metabolic rates in the 1960s, proved by a study released earlier this week.
    • Survey those in your office about temperature. Identify cool or hot office areas and question the use of space heaters or amount of layers used.
    • Speak to the building manager about changing the temperature to productive levels.
    • When HVAC systems break, get to work fixing it immediately and send an office-wide email recognizing the temperature and reporting actions being taken.
    • Make warmer, unused rooms and conference rooms available for employees to share.
    • If you have the money for the capital cost, change from central air to regional thermostats controlled by employees according to Software Advice, a consultancy that helps software buyers.

How comfortable are you at work? What are your coworkers wearing in summer and winter? What can you do to promote a more WorkHuman space?


About the Author

Lynette Silva Heelan

Lynette Silva is a principal consultant on Workhuman’s Strategy & Consulting team, partnering with clients on change strategies to make work more human.

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