Female entering the building.

Brrr! Office chills getting you down? Why office temperature is a burning issue for business

28 January 2015


Winter has settled in across the country and found its way into our workplace. Colourful sweaters, scarves and gloves adorn the office floor.

Most of us would instinctively agree that working at a comfortable temperature makes us more productive. In a survey of around 4,300 office workers, one-third said that temperature affects their productivity at the workplace. However, we fail to appreciate just how much difference a couple of degrees can make to our productivity and ergonomics.

Why should we bother?

A change in temperature can come with a real financial cost to a business. A drop in body temperature causes us to consume more energy trying to keep ourselves warm. The result is we have less energy for concentration, inspiration, and insight. According to a major 2004 ergonomics study, employees committed 44% more typing mistakes and were less than half as productive at low temperatures (20°C) as when temperatures were warm (25°C).  Research from Northumbria University found that cold office temperatures particularly cause productivity to fall between 1pm and 4pm in the afternoon. This stems from the body's natural circadian rhythms coinciding with low temperatures to cause drowsiness.

Aside from the financial impact, feeling cold also affects our impression of the people around us as research has revealed a connection between physical and interpersonal warmth. Essentially, being cold makes us see those around us as cold. A drop in temperature also increases chances of employees calling in sick – whether because they are ill or because they want to avoid an unpleasant work environment. Employees will also be distracted and spend more time getting up to get a hot drink or wash their hands. Equally, putting the thermostat too high may leave employees fatigued and struggling to concentrate.

Getting it right…

So what is the optimal room temperature for productivity? There is evident disagreement between studies conducted to determine this magic number. Fans of the cold will like the outcome of the Helsinki University of Technology's research, which found that the optimal temperature range is between 21°C and 22°C. Heatseekers will prefer the findings of Cornell researchers that productivity remains high at 25°C. The UK government recommends a neutral 23.3°C.

Clearly, getting the temperature right can be a difficult task partly because being 'comfortable' is subjective and varies a lot based on personal preference.  There is also a gender issue as women often seem to get colder than men. Such differing opinion can often cause strife between employees. So much so that in one case a mediator was once called in to resolve an office altercation over temperature. According to CareerBuilder, 10% of workers have fought over the thermostat setting with a co-worker.

One suggested approach to prevent tensions from boiling over is to conduct a survey; possibly via a third party site like SurveyMonkey and experimenting with temperature settings. In any event, it's best to err on the side of warm, as it's easier for people to cool down rather than warm up.

Businesses seeking to combat temperature issues are understandably constrained by operational budgets. However, costs incurred through increased heating and employee research may well lead to drastic savings in other areas as a result of the increased efficiency. In any case, it is important to engender meaningful relationships between people at work and understand that business operates through people.  So businesses beware - when it comes to office temperature, leaving employees out in the cold can have bitter consequences for productivity and employee relations.