It’s nearly that time of year. The mercury rises outside and the dial on the air conditioning goes down inside. That’s the reality of a lot of businesses during the summer months. But new research from a variety of sources has shown that it may actually be bad for business to take such a ‘laissez faire’ attitude to office climate control.
Why? Because in the majority of cases, air conditioning and climate control systems are set to ‘overkill’ for at least half of the population. According to a 2019 study by London property maintenance specialists Aspect, more than half of the 2,000 women interviewed said that their place of work was unpleasant because it was too cold.
This finding accords with other studies. A 2015 study published in the journal ‘Nature’ found that cold workplaces disproportionately affect women because air conditioning and climate control standards were established back when workplaces were male-dominated spaces. In short, ambient cooling is designed for men’s comfort above women’s. And it’s costing businesses money.
The 2015 study also stated that this overkill effect caused workplaces to be “intrinsically non-energy efficient.” That makes sense. Why pay for energy to keep 50% of the workforce at a temperature that is too cool for their comfort.
Nick Bizley, director of operations at Aspect who conducted the 2019 study. He believes organizations can improve comfort for all employees and potentially reduce energy waste. “The fact that more than half of women complain of workplaces being too cold tells us something important. If employers were to ask their people if they were happy with the temperature and to allow them to work in different areas with different ambient temperatures, this could help tackle that particular problem.”
There’s another source of waste when that thermostat gets dialled too far down; productivity. A separate 2019 study conducted in Germany found that women’s productivity dips when they are too cold. The researchers asked men and women to perform rudimentary mental tasks, like adding with a calculator and making words out of jumbled letters. When the temperature was lowered, women began to fail at these tasks. And when the temperature was set higher, men began to struggle.
This all shows that there’s no one temperature that suits everyone. So what can employers do to keep their people comfortable and productive while limiting the energy waste and associated damage to the environment by having the air-con running full blast? The solution can be quite simple. As Bizley points out, it’s not difficult to have separate spaces with different climates. The challenge is facilitating an environment where workers can easily move between the two to find the temperature that is most comfortable for them.
Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE is a specialist in organizational psychology and health with a focus on workplaces. “Organizations don’t need to splash out on expensive multi-zone climate control for everyone to work at a comfortable temperature. But they ought to be comfortable for everyone. And that’s a policy issue as much as a design one. How many managers ask their people if the temperature is comfortable? How many organizations make space available where the air con isn’t on full blast during the summer?