Photo: George Frey/Getty Images
Photo: George Frey/Getty Images

Office thermostat wars: How to win the battle, or at least make peace

Feel that chill? Part of it is coming from the company heat and air system, but most of it originates with co-workers who are unhappy with the office temp. If you don't think that's a thing, well, you probably have the office thermostat set at your optimal temperature. You may even be in control of the controls, or authorized to send someone to change the temp at your whim.

If you're like the majority, though, you're probably at war over the office thermostat -- or inwardly seething. And if you're female, maybe you should be a little upset if your office is kept at vegetable-crisper temperatures. According to a 2019 study, women can't work as productively when the office temperatures are chilly.

Tom Chang associate professor of finance and business economics at the University of Southern California and Agne Kajackaite of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center varied the temperature in a campus room, as low as 61 degrees Fahrenheit and as high as 91. They then had 543 German college students take a test. The results were interesting for both the freezing and sweltering masses. The study showed women did better as the room got warmer. "As the temp went up, women did better on math and verbal tasks, and men did worse," Chang told National Public Radio. "And the increase for women in math and verbal tasks was much larger and more pronounced than the decrease in performance of men."

Chang said he hoped the findings initiate some attitude shifts. "I think we should be more aware that environmental factors, like temperature, have a much bigger impact on your day-to-day lives than we generally give them credit for," he added.

While one study containing very compelling research probably won't be enough to justify a company-wide shift towards warmer temperatures, there are still some other tactics that might work. The topic of freezing office space is coming under consideration from the board room to the break room. Even Harvard Law School, located in the hardy and uncomplaining New England area, has a strict office thermostat policy. Others weighing in on the issue include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Society for Human Resource Management and, oddly enough, Honeywell. Here are their combined best tips for winning the office thermostat war without losing your job or threatening your health:

OSHA only makes "suggestions," but they're a start. OSHA doesn't have standards for protecting employees from occupational heat exposure, and while an office might seem to be dangerously hot at times, desk jockeys are unlikely to suffer heat-related damage. Still, "the OSHA technical manual recommends employers maintain workplace temperatures in the range of 68-76 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity control in the range of 20 to 60 percent," according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Note that this is substantially above the 35-40 degrees some offices insist on. You'll probably never get to management with a chart demonstrating how inhospitable your office environment is. But if you do, this OSHA recommendation should be on there.

Play the productivity card. If you can catch management's ear, make sure to bring up the productivity cost of having an office that's too cold, Honeywell recommended. It's a good idea to keep the Cornell study at your (cold, numb) fingertips. This would be the one that established that labor expenses shot up almost 10% when the office temperature is kept at uncomfortable levels. Sure, the Cornell study came out in 2004, but office ergonomics are still quite responsive to the workplace temperature.

Assume you have allies. According to a study conducted by Software Advice, a clean half of the office workers studied said that they were unhappy with the office temp at least a few times each month. Other findings from SA underlined that temperature is a force for evil at most workplaces. For example, SA said:

–Forty-two percent of respondents say their offices are too warm during the summer, while 56 percent report that their offices are too cold in the winter.

–Sixty percent predicted more control over the temperature would increase their productivity at the office.

–The median of preferred temps for women was 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

–The older people got, the more undesirable office temperatures affected them: "46- to 55-year-old employees are 36 percent more likely to be dissatisfied than 18- to 25-year-olds," the study concluded.

Sit near the window? This is another recommendation from Honeywell. "In the winter, the sun's rays help warm you up and in the summer, if you're lucky enough to have windows that open, you can crack a window to let some warmer air in (The building manager might have something to say about this eventually, so don't get too used to it!)," the climate control company explained.

Try trading seats with the enemy. While it's good, clean fun to constantly change the thermostat to your preferred setting and then get mad when someone else does the same, it may be more helpful to offer to swap seats with your temperature doppelganger. "Who knows, after a few weeks sitting in your seat they might agree with you and you've gained an ally in the Thermostat Wars," Honeywell added.

And if you do all that and still sit shivering in the office, even with two layers of cardigans and an illegal space heater at your feet? That's when you might want to try drinking some coffee, which is known to warm your body as well as wake you up, according to the Eat This, Not That! website.

Also consider other keep-the-peace type measures like offering to work remotely at your home, which is presumably a more optimal temperature for you. You may want to ask for a schedule where you can come in earlier or stay later if that would make you in charge of the temperature a higher percentage of your workday.

Finally, any time you're warm enough to do so, see about updating your resume. It's your choice whether to move on from a job that cannot or will not correct the office temperature. But if you do, make sure to ask about the workplace policies on freezing office personnel before you accept a new position.

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