Does the air conditioning at work impact my performance?

Study reveals that uncomfortable temperatures are affecting the UK workforce

The UK’s workplaces are – in general – too cold for women and too hot for men, according to a nationally representative study* of 2,000 UK adults conducted on behalf of Aspect.

The research, commissioned to explore the issues faced by the UK workforce concerning their physical comfort at work, found that almost half of workers in the UK say the ambient temperature at work is unpleasant. But it’s unpleasant for different reasons.

More than half of women complain that their place of work is unpleasant because it is too cold. But men are more likely to find their place of work uncomfortable for the opposite reason. 43% say the physical environment where they work is too hot.

Workplace temperature satisfaction varies with age too. The oldest workers are more likely to find the ambient temperature at their place of work unpleasant than the youngest workers. 37% of 18-24 year olds complained that their place of work was too hot compared to 44% of over-55s. 40% of 18-24 year olds say their place of work is too cool, compared to 47% of over-55s.

However, those aged 35-44 were the most likely overall to have an issue with the temperature at work. 49% of 35-44 year olds complained of workplaces that were too hot and 51% complained of workplaces that were too cold. On the whole, it is women who suffer the most from uncomfortable temperatures at work.

Policy answers to facilities challenges

A number of studies have shown that men and women react differently to ambient temperature. The short version of what these studies show is that women feel the cold more than men. That’s bad for two reasons; firstly, nobody should be working at an uncomfortable temperature if it can be avoided and secondly, organisations are using energy (and money) to keep people at a temperature they don’t actually like. So it’s a literal waste of energy.

A May 2019 study** even found that not only do women feel the cold more than men, it actually affects their effectiveness. Researchers in Germany discovered that women performed better on maths and verbal tests when the ambient temperature was higher. The opposite was true for men, who performed better in warmer temperatures.

So how do organisations manage these differing requirements?

Flexibility is the key. Organisations certainly don’t need to invest in multi-zone climate control so every worker gets their own office micro-climate. During hot weather, those in charge of the thermostat could ensure that some areas of the building are air conditioned, and others aren’t, or at least aren’t as cold. Some thermostats have a default ‘cool’ setting that feels cold to some people, so a few adjustments can make a lot of difference. Then, by giving employees the choice of where they sit and making that choice easy through hot-desking, they can work where is most comfortable for them. During cold weather, take the same approach with the heating. Obviously this won’t work in all workplaces, but where applicable, it’s a simple way to ensure productivity and effectiveness don’t suffer unnecessarily.

Dress code is another area where employers can help their people. Employers should also pay attention to obvious signs of discomfort like people wearing cardigans during August or shirt sleeves in January. Not every employee will volunteer their preferences. There’s no point having the air conditioning on full blast if people are still required to wear suit jackets or inappropriate uniforms. In fact, a 2017 study*** found that almost a third of employees have considered quitting a job over a restrictive dress code, so there’s an employee retention angle to this approach too.

Nick Bizley, director of operations at Aspect believes employers can help tackle the problem of uncomfortable workplace temperatures by soliciting feedback, instead of adopting a ‘one temperature suits all’ policy:

“The fact that more than half of women complain of workplaces being too cold tells us something important. Studies**** have shown, for example, that office climate standards were set at a time when most workplaces were male-dominated, so the ‘ideal temperatures’ are really ‘men’s ideal temperatures’. 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.”

About the study

*A national polling company surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,000 UK adults on behalf of Aspect, between 09/04/2019 and 10/04/2019. The polling company used are members of the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research and employ members of the Marketing Research Society.

**Women’s brains work better in warmer offices

***Why do workplace dress codes persist?

****Energy consumption in buildings and female thermal demand

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