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The big chill – braving winter at work

Laura Johnson

Chilled out offices

As the temperature drops and offices develop a frosty feel, Laura Johnson asks if employers should be doing more to keep their staff cosy or simply chill them out

How many of your people have already asked to bring a personal heater into the office this autumn? Maybe they’ve stashed an emergency hot water bottle in their desk drawer? Office temperature is one of the most commonly complained about issues among staff. But it’s just harmless moaning surely. Or is it? Grumbles about your office climate may seem trivial, but the consequences can be more serious than you would expect.

As the chilly weather arrives, shivering workforces find themselves at the mercy of the favoured few that control the thermostat for their whole building. “The thermometer always says 20 degrees even when you have to wear a coat indoors, therefore how can the thermometer be correct?” says Debbie, talking about her office. “We moved into a new building and there is air conditioning but for some reason the temperature isn’t controlled properly,” adds Kathryn about her workplace. “The temperature is controlled by the partners, who seem to like it as cold as possible.” The distrustful and bitter tones of Debbie and Kathryn’s climate-related grievances might sound familiar. There’s nothing like a cold office to destroy team spirit.

Your initial observation is probably that it’s two female workers complaining about the cold. How predictable. It's a proven physiological fact that women feel a chill more than men. Similarly slender people sense a nip in the air more than those carrying a few extra pounds. And that’s the key problem with regulating office temperature; it’s an annoyingly personal and subjective problem, to the extent that even scientific studies can't agree on the best level to set your thermostat.

Too hot/too cold 

Although studies consistently show temperature significantly alters the quality and volume of employee outputs, they can't agree on the optimal temperature for achieving peak productivity. Research by Cornell University in the US found when an office was heated to a toasty 25 degrees Celsius, workers typed 100% of the time and had a 10% error rate. At 20 degrees Celsius they typed 54% of the time and had a 25% error rate. However, a study by the Helsinki University of Technology in Finland suggests 25 degrees Celsius is far too cosy to work in. While their findings agree that temperature affects productivity, they propose the ideal temperature is a relatively balmy 21 to 22 degrees Celsius. To further confuse matters the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends turning the dial down a further degree or two to 20 degrees Celsius.

The only conclusion we can make is one you probably already know - whatever temperature you set your office at it will invariably be wrong for someone. Manager, Tim Jones* found this out the hard way. “We were working in an open plan office, with other tenants at the time,” he explains. “The building had air conditioning but it took a while to change temperature as the whole building was managed on one system. As a result, a group of tenants from another business opened some of the windows to let fresh air in during the summer months.” This innocent action provoked one of Jones’ employees to approach his trade union claiming due to the pollution levels in the city centre, opening windows was aggravating his breathing condition. “He never went across and asked the other tenants to close the window and not once did he directly speak to me about it as his overall director,” Jones says. “When HR formally raised the issue with me, I liaised with the building management to rectify the problem.” It’s a cautionary tale for any manager tempted to file moans about office temperature under the ‘too petty to acknowledge’ category.

Finding a solution can be tricky. There are stories of larger offices creating warm and cool zones and allowing staff to locate a desk where they can work most comfortably. Some managers have taken the bold step of putting temperature decisions to a team vote. Others go into the risky health and safety territory of letting colleagues bring in personal heaters or fans.

If you find yourself fighting off complaints that the very average 20 degree Celsius climate in your office is leaving people chilly, tell them to be thankful they don't work for Facebook. The social media giant hit the press earlier this year when it was revealed Mark Zuckerberg keeps their offices at a chilly 15 degrees Celsius. Ironically, he reportedly claims this stops ‘cyber-loafing’ and boosts productivity. It also explains the Facebook leader’s apparent attachment to wearing a hoodie.

* Not his real name. Name changed due to the individual’s request for anonymity.

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