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Why is my office so cold?
Illustration by Matt Rayner

4 min read

Why is my office so cold?

Middle of summer and your office feels like a cryogenic chamber? I understand completely. Here's why feeling comfortable at work matters.

It’s the middle of the hottest July on record, but you arrive to work sporting the latest in essential officewear: a toque and scarf, wool mittens, and a down parka rated for Antarctic expeditions.

The reason you’re forced to dress this way? The office air conditioning, of course. It blasts a steady stream of frigid air directly onto your workstation, and turns your entire office into an igloo no matter the season. The middle of summer? An icebox. The dead of winter? Inhospitable to all life.

“Today,” you think to yourself, “the office air conditioner won’t defeat me!” But of course it does, just as usual. By noon, you’re shivering.

Why is my office so cold?

We all want to feel comfortable when we’re at work, and evidence suggests our comfort level is directly related to our focus level and productivity. Nevertheless, offices around the world are too cold for the majority of workers, especially women. A report from BC Hydro found that “60 percent of workers find office temperatures are so low that they have trouble working, requiring them to regularly use a blanket or other layers to fend off the chill.”

So why are our offices always so damn cold? Part of it might be the sedentary nature of office work. If you’re like me, you sit at your desk for eight hours, practically motionless, and typing is your sole form of physical activity besides walking to a meeting room or heading to the fridge to grab your lunch. Do air conditioning settings take this type of work into account?

The answer is most likely no, but it’s also more problematic than that. According to BC Hydro spokeswoman Susie Rieder, “part of the problem is that many office ventilation and heating systems continue to use settings that were often designed for men in the 1960s, and research shows men have a higher metabolic rate than women.”

A 2015 Sky News video covering this phenomenon went viral, setting off a chain of reactionary response articles, condemnation, and outright mockery on social media. It got so bad that Radhika Sanghani, the journalist who first drew attention to “sexist air conditioning,” issued a response that provided further evidence for her claims. Who would’ve thought it’d be so controversial to offer an explanation for why offices are so cold?

Comfortable working conditions are a must-have

No matter your stance on this ridiculously hot-button issue (get it?), the fact of the matter still stands: people are having trouble working because they’re too cold—and that’s a problem, for them and their employers.

We’ve written before about how office layouts, including open office plans (which, by the way, make cold offices even colder), can have a large impact on our productivity. So it shouldn’t be a major revelation that office temperature has a similar impact. When we’re cold, it’s hard to focus, and even typing can be physically uncomfortable.

If you’ve ever had to take your hands off your keyboard mid-sentence, and rub them together to regain feeling, you know exactly what I’m talking about. More than anything, it’s annoying. And neglecting annoyed workers isn’t a great idea if you’re worried about your retention rates.

And “just bring a sweater” isn’t helping matters. Cold offices not only force people to pack their bags with emergency cardigans, scarves, and Snuggies. They also hinder our productivity, not to mention create resentment and animosity (often along gender lines) over who controls the thermostat. There’s also the mockery that comes along with wearing one of those sleeping bag coats in the middle of July.

Finding a comfortable middle ground shouldn’t be a war of attrition with your colleagues. That's a negative employee experience for everyone. In fact, it’s in your best interest to ensure everyone is comfortable, because if your colleagues aren’t comfortable at work, that’s probably negatively impacting your team. In short, cold offices are bad news for organizations and we need to put a stop to them once and for all.

Change the temperature

The good news is this problem is very easily solved. Most utilities recommend offices be cooled to “between 23°C and 26°C, that air conditioning should be turned off when the office is unoccupied and that a heating and air conditioning professional be hired to identify energy efficient solutions.”

Better yet, give your people the option to work in rooms in the office where they can have control over how comfortable they are. Or, if you’re not already doing this, give them the option to work remotely. Feeling uncomfortable at work shouldn’t be something your people have to deal with, and they may not put up with it for long, so find some creative ways to make them feel comfortable. Or simply change the temperature.

Want to create a positive employee experience for your people?
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Corey Moseley

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