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Build Your Career Office Life

How to Resolve the Office Temperature Debate

image for Africa Studio / Shutterstock
Africa Studio / Shutterstock

The office temperature debate is nothing new. Everyone works better at their preferred room temperatures. But how you decide to raise this issue with your office managers or enforce your own thermal comfort matters to the productivity and morale of your workplace.

The conversation around the temperature in the office can echo "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" – some like it hot, some like it cold, and some are just never satisfied. It is impossible to please everyone, but most employers and employees agree that a concerted effort to accommodate as many people as possible goes a long way.

"When there is a debate around temperature, the solution should be to reach a happy, reasonable medium," said Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster. "It's important to address the issue with employees so they know you're listening to them."

Extreme office temperatures can lead employees to extreme measures in response. For example, Lauren Crain's office is so cold, she was given a Snuggie when she first started working for HealthLabs.com. She also keeps a small heater at her desk to keep her fingers warm and to keep her toes "from getting frostbite."

The temperature in Crain's office in Texas is controlled by the business manager, who lives in California. Crain finds her office to be freezing but doesn't mind bundling up.

On the other side of the country, Chris Vancheri, vice president of Coyne PR, has a fan blasting from the minute he walks into his New Jersey office until the minute he leaves.

"I change the [thermostat] buttons the minute I walk into a room," he said. "I'm that guy."

According to a 2018 CareerBuilder survey, nearly half of 1,012 full-time, private-sector American workers say their office is either too hot or too cold, which means the debate over thermal comfort is raging across many offices in the U.S.

Whether your office has the climate of a rainforest or an icy tundra, an uncomfortable office temperature has a significant impact on productivity, cognitive performance and workplace comfort.

In a world driven by distraction, businesses are concerned about the potential effects on their employees' productivity and what that means for revenue.

Temperature plays a big role in whether employees are comfortable, focused and productive, but it walks a fine line.

Many believe in the focusing powers of a chilly office – most notably Mark Zuckerberg, who keeps his thermostat at a numbing 59 degrees Fahrenheit – but Salemi says it's more about comfort than anything else.

"When you feel comfortable in your workplace, you can focus on the work itself and not being too cold or too hot," she said.

Sean Pour, co-founder of SellMax, also skews toward the cooler side, but not out of a desire to eke out more focus from his team. "We keep the office slightly cold (69 F) because it appeases most people, and you can put on an extra layer to help keep you comfortable."

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn't mandate employers to maintain specific temperatures in the workplace, but it recommends that employers keep the thermostat between 68 and 76 F.

The ideal temperature for the "typical" office is around 71.6 F, according to the Helsinki University of Technology's Laboratory for Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning.

Of course, individual preferences vary, and it's difficult to please everyone, especially when you have complex buildings or office layouts to contend with – like Mansi Laus Deo's workplace, which has a section of sun-facing desks and a section in an open hall.

"There was a lot of squabbling over what the right temperature is for everyone," she said. "It definitely did lead to some people feeling talked down."

To make sure your office is at a neutral temperature, consider consulting an HVAC professional.

Marla Mock, vice president of operations at Aire Serv, recommends looking into zoning, where multiple thermostats are used to control temperatures in different parts of the building.

"Different areas of your office have different heating and cooling needs," she said. "The copy room with its heat-generating machines needs more air conditioning than offices that never receive any direct sun."

In the end, the debate of high temperatures versus overall thermal comfort can come down to company policy. You may be better off enforcing one temperature and requiring your employees to stick to it. This sets an overall expectation around temperature, and your employees can adjust to meet their own comfort as a result. This means office managers won't have to deal with temperature and productivity issues, and your business may be able to increase its energy efficiency.

If you're an employee at a company where there's an impassioned temperature debate, push your executives to make a decision about overall temperature and be done with it. If you're looking for a place to start, OSHA has a full set of guidelines and regulations for indoor office air quality. You can refer to its official standards to get the ball rolling on a comprehensive temperature policy at your office.

In general, research has shown that women feel colder than men do at the same air temperature. One study found that men prefer rooms at 72 F, while women prefer 77 F. Body size and fat-to-muscle ratios are largely to blame.

"The discrepancy dates back to the 1960s and '70s, when scientists and regulators set workplace indoor climate standards based on the metabolic rate of a 40-year-old man weighing 70 kilograms (154 pounds)," wrote Gwynn Guilford in an article for Quartz.

Many professionals do not view office temperature as a sexism issue but recognize the different realities for men and women concerning body temperature and clothing options.

"Gender norms do play in," said Sarah Anderson, SEO and content strategy specialist at Hearst Magazines. "Normal women's work attire lends itself to being a little cooler in the summer, making air conditioning necessary for men and a problem for women."

It is important to regularly check in with your workers and follow the wishes of the majority, with allowances for individual modifications as needed.

Despite research and recommendations from OSHA, many offices determine their own optimal office atmosphere. For instance, Matthew Briggs, chairman at Briggs Acquisitions, said his office is intentionally kept at 65 F to increase employee productivity and concentration.

"We give away company-branded sweater vests as a resolve if people are cold," he said. "I can attest we aren't the only finance-based company who follows this policy."

"Our office is set to 73 degrees," said Jared Weitz, CEO and founder of United Capital Source. "We encourage people to bring in sweaters or jackets if needed, and desktop fans are allowed."

Whitney Meers, strategist at Concrete Blonde Consulting, has given up her fight and works from home for the summer. "I've tried dressing for winter weather and wearing jeans and a sweatshirt despite the 90-degree heat outside … I just can't seem to get warm," she said.

Most workers who are unhappy with the temperature in their office buildings recognize that there are individuals who feel the opposite way in the same space.

Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at Blue Fountain Media, says her office is split 50/50 between workers who are always cold and those who are constantly sweating. She said HR does its best to keep everyone happy. "Keep a work sweater or blanket and a desk fan at your workstation at all times," she recommends.

Vancheri turns down the thermostat to fit his personal preferences. When he has meetings, his colleagues bring blankets, sweaters and jackets. He thinks 95% of his office doesn't enjoy the cold the way he does, but they adjust.

Crain, on the other hand, is glad her office doesn't control the temperature, as she thinks it would result in daily disagreements. Her strategy is bundling up with sweaters, while her colleagues sitting 6 feet away use personal fans.

Whether the debate is presented as men versus women or cold-natured versus warm-natured, no one can fight this battle for you. If you're uncomfortable, talk to your managers, find a new part of the office where you can work, crack a window, or bring a sweater to work.

Even if you don't have the individual power to tamper with the workplace thermostat, you win the temperature wars by determining your productivity preferences and planning accordingly to fit your office climate.

Matt D'Angelo and Carlyann Edwards contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Kiely Kuligowski

Kiely is a staff writer based in New York City. She worked as a marketing copywriter after graduating with her bachelor’s in English from Miami University (OH) and is now embracing her hipster side as a new resident of Brooklyn. You can reach her on Twitter or by email.