The Fight Over Office Temperatures and How HR Fits In

If you work in an office, you've probably witnessed some of the signs of a simmering battle: office temperatures. Signs of temperature warfare include:

  • Cubicles lined with blankets
  • Space heaters hidden beneath desks
  • Personal fans running on desktops
  • Hot or cold drinks being cradled by shivering or overheated co-workers
  • Discarded suit jackets and shirts have been sweated through

Sound familiar? Office temperatures have been in the news this spring, with a recent study showing temperature can impact productivity. It’s bad news for women, for the most part, with the results implying most offices are cooler than women prefer, and that their productivity is lower at lower temperatures.

Here's what HR professionals need to know about being the moderator in the battle for the thermostat.

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Why is Temperature a Problem?

Much of the core problem, according to a New York Times article, goes back to the way office buildings are built. The article says most thermostats follow an old “comfort model” from the 1960s: the metabolic rate of a 40-year-old man weighing about 154 pounds. Here’s how the old model is wreaking havoc.


The recent “Battle for the Thermostat” study, which put men and women in various temperatures to do computer work, had some interesting insights:

  • "At higher temperatures, women perform better on a math and verbal task while the reverse effect is observed for men."
  • "The increase in female performance in response to higher temperature is significantly larger and more precisely estimated than the corresponding decrease in male performance."
  • "Gender-mixed workplaces may be able to increase productivity by setting the thermostat higher than current standards."

Bad Vibes

Last year, CareerBuilder weighed in on the ongoing feud with some statistics about how the thermostat battle breaks down in the office:

  • 15% of workers have argued with a coworker about office temperatures (7% men; 22% women)
  • One in five has secretly changed the office temperature during the summer
  • Retail has the hottest employees, and health care has the coldest

Resource Management

Finally, over-cooling or over-heating a workspace can be wasteful. If you're forcing the system to overperform against the weather (by making a building colder than necessary in the winter, or warmer than necessary in the winter), you're spending a lot of extra money. Secondly, the energy required to crank temperatures up or down can be a waste of energy consumption, which is hard on the climate, as well.

Why Does it Matter?


Employers need workers who are able to focus on work productively. Safety and physical comfort are the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, so by allowing an uncomfortable temperature to linger in the office, it’s likely some of your team members aren’t very happy to come in each day. From a purely capitalistic standpoint, that matters. The researchers from the "Battle of the Thermostat" study put it succinctly:

"Our research says that even if as a business you only care about profit and productivity, you should take the comfort of your workers into account, as it will affect the bottom line." - Tom Chang of University of Southern California

What Should HR Do About It?

It’s a tricky situation to tackle, but if productivity is on the line and up to half of your workers are uncomfortable, you know you need to step in. Here are some tips on mitigating the battle:

Keep Communication Open

We always recommend open communication (see: 4 Communication Issues & How HR Can Solve Them), and the temperature issue is no different. Rather than stick with the status quo:

  • Get the opinion from your workforce by taking a survey
  • Be clear about who controls the thermostat and how it arrived on that temperature
  • Discuss solutions with unsatisfied employees

Allow & Encourage Individual Solutions

It's unlikely your employees will agree on the perfect temperature. Women tend to prefer warmer temperatures, and men tend to like it cooler. These differences are often biological; for example, bigger people tend to be warmer, and women generally are cooler due to more body fat, which has lower metabolic rates than muscle.

Because an office-wide solution may still be uncomfortable to some workers, make sure to allow for individual solutions:

  • Remote Working: If there are certain times of the year or workday that are particularly uncomfortable, consider allowing employees to work from home if possible.
  • Encourage Breaks: Taking a quick break to walk around outside is healthy for the mind and body; if it also provides a temperature reset, even better.
  • Relax the Dress Code: Because the thermostat model is so often based on male-dominated, coat-and-tie workplaces of the '60s, it makes sense that temperatures are often too cool rather than too hot. Make casual clothes like cardigans, jackets and sweatshirts more acceptable, especially if most employees have personal space in a cubicle.

Beyond the Walls

For employees who aren't in the office, temperature can be even more of an issue. So much so, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has weather-related guidelines. For cold stress, OSHA warns against immersion/trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia, and offers a wind chill temperature guide for employers. For the heat index, OSHA recommends protective measures, such as providing drinking water, encouraging sunscreen, scheduling breaks in cool, shaded areas and buddying-up for safety.

The fight over the office thermostat isn't likely to go away overnight. However, as a human resources professional, you should feel empowered to not only inquire about the comfort of your team members, but also to advocate for their best interests and those of your business' productivity. Want to learn more about the strength of an empowered HR team? Get a free HR assessment today.

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