The thermostat battle: what’s the ideal office temperature?
Temperature has an effect on cognitive performance and productivity, according to recent research.
Are you sweating out of your shirt while the colleague next to you is wrapped in a scarf and still freezing? That’s not only uncomfortable; office temperature can also affect the company’s bottom line, a new study. The most important conclusion: women are more negatively impacted by colder temperatures than men by higher ones, in terms of performance.
Researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the WZB Social Science Center in Berlin studied the effect of temperature on performance by conducting a lab experiment with 543 students in Berlin. The students had to conduct several tasks: they had to resolve math and verbal problems, and they took a cognitive reflection test. The assignments were spread out in different sessions, and in each session the researchers changed the temperature, varying from 16 degrees to 33 degrees Celsius.
The effect of temperature on women is larger
“We found that as the temperature went up, women did substantially better, especially in math”, the study’s co-author Tom Chang says. For men, it was the other way around: their performance steadily dropped as the thermostat went up. But the effect of increasing temperature on women was significantly larger and more precisely estimated than the effect of decreasing temperature on men: female performance increased by 10 to 15% in a warmer environment, while male performance dropped 3% in higher temperatures.
The fact that women prefer warmer environments has several biological reasons. Women’s skin temperature, especially the hands’, is up to 3 degrees lower than men’s. The female hormone estrogen contributes to that: it thickens the blood so that it cannot reach the body’s extremities as well. Also, women have a slower metabolic rate than men. Because men tend to have a higher muscle mass, the body produces more heat energy in rest and therefore keeps the blood flow higher and burning more calories while sitting behind a desk.
What’s the ideal temperature for both sexes, according to the Berlin study? For women, the ideal between 21 and 27 degrees Celsius. Men perform better when the temperature is lower than 21 degrees. This is confirmed by earlier research, such as a 2015 Dutch study that says women feel comfortable in a temperature of 24 to 25 degrees Celsius. A small difference is that according to the Dutch study, men preferred a temperature of about 22 degrees.
“So, if you have a gender-balanced office, the optimal temperature is around 24 degrees Celsius”, Chang says. “That’s the skin-boiling temperature for me”, the researcher admits. But temperature matters, Chang says, that’s for sure. “What the research says is that if as a business, you care only about profits or productivity, you should still take the comfort of your workforce into account because it has the real potential to significantly affect your bottom line.”