Heat Up the Office for Efficiency

ISE Magazine – Volume 48: Number 10

A growing body of research shows that turning up the thermostat a few degrees can boost office productivity without making occupants uncomfortable. The problem is that since the advent of air conditioning buildings have gotten out of tune with the environments they’re in and the people who work in the building. Managers set a winter temperature, a summer temperature and expect workers to deal with it. Indoor temperature standards are based on rather archaic research. A paper in Nature Climate Change in 2015 cited an empirical thermal comfort model developed in the 1960s. It was based on an average male’s metabolic rate and might overstate the standard female metabolic rate by 35 percent. There was a study that dates from the early 1900s claimed that people typed faster in cold temperatures. But research in the current century has dispelled that notion.

A team found that the biggest effect on productivity by far came from temperature. And the hotter the better. Productivity increases as temperature reaches the upper 70s, not dropping until it hits the mid-80s (in Fahrenheit). Data from Japan back up that contention. In 2005, the Japanese government launched its “Cool Biz” campaign, setting government offices at 82 degrees to curb carbon dioxide emissions. Neckties and jackets were out; chinos, polo shirts and half-sleeve dress shirts were in. The first year saved nearly half a million tons of carbon dioxide emissions and saw no adverse effects on productivity. Interestingly, research shows that if you strip everything off and put people in bathing suits, everybody chooses a temperature of about 78 degrees. The Danish scientist who conducted that research, P.O. Fanger, even developed an equation that, given an environment’s temperature, could predict how many people would complain about it.

But outside of, say, Olympic swimmers, people don’t go to work in swimsuits. As air conditioning took hold, real-world office temperature was optimized for people who wore suits and ties. But society is changing. More women are in the workforce; more offices accept casual dress. Japan’s Cool Biz campaign has emigrated to South Korea and Great Britain, and textile manufacturers are devising lightweight materials and designs.