New research from a Dutch study, titled Energy Consumption in Buildings and Female Thermal Demand, has found today's optimal office temperature was decided in the 1960s and based on male comfort.
The average man weighed about 70kg at the time so it's no surprise today's larger men may complain of feeling hot in the office while petite women find themselves shivering. According to the report, which was published in the Nature Climate Change journal, women usually produce about 30 per cent less heat than blokes.
So what's the answer?
Yes, when we're too cold we are less productive but cranking up the airconditioning is costly to businesses and the environment.
According to Matthew Sullivan, chief executive and co-founder of Hux Connect, many bosses – always keen to boost productivity – overlook one of the easiest ways to save money; make your staff comfortable. Sullivan self-funded his tech venture with twin brother Rhys in 2014 and has developed a system using sensors to measure all the climatic factors affecting employee comfort. The data is viewable in real time in a portal accessible by staff. Its analysis is helping bosses spot office areas needing climate tweaks, including partitions, vents, insulation or heating and cooling adjustments.
Hux Connect is working on projects for the Victorian government and City of Melbourne and says his business is a disruptor to traditional indoor environment quality (IEQ) assessments, which usually cost tens of thousands of dollars, making them out of reach to small business owners. Hux Connect gives bosses a partial IEQ, including workplace carbon dioxide, ventilation, radiant and ambient temperatures, lux (luminous emittance) and occupancy readings and can installed for under $1000.
"While everyone knows theoretically there are solutions, practically it's always been very difficult to apply a solution in a workplace because of the main inhibitors – cost and complexity," Sullivan says.
"But there are increasing numbers of studies that show not only that poor climate control leads to dissatisfaction and happiness, but also directly impact productivity and, in many instances, this can equate to serious money – one study [from the Indoor Environment Department of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California] identifies this as costing the US economy up to $US160 billion per year."
Office temperature of 20 to 24 degrees usually produces optimal worker performance, Sullivan reports. Go above or below that and you will see a 0.5 to 1.5 per cent decline in productivity for each degree outside that range. But that is just ambient temperature. Radiant temperature is net gain or loss of heat, which directly affects workers' thermal comfort.
It is why you feel warm standing in the sun on a cold day and feel cold standing near an open freezer on a hot day. It is why the office thermostat may read 21 degrees yet Sue, who sits near the kitchen, always feels cool, and Ronnie, who sits near the printer, feels warm.
"The temperature one employee finds comfortable is rarely the same as all colleagues and one of the problems is that office managers – the people who control office climates – do not know how to open up dialogue on this hot topic and so you usually have to make a complaint and then the whole process of getting the temperature changed is very convoluted," Sullivan says.
"Temperatures in offices have always been so controlled, which is why we and others in the States are moving towards developing a far more collaborative and democratic process of controlling temperatures within workplaces."
Perth small business owner Donna de Mello knows first hand how uncomfortable workplaces can be to work in. "In one of the offices I worked in, it would get so hot I would have to occasionally go into the bathroom and sit in a cubicle with my top off just to cool down, crazy," De Mello says.
These days she is boss of her own business, Admin Elsewhere, and she can crank up the aircon as she sees fit. While "not an expert" De Mello has worked in many open-plan offices and says she'd often get frustrated by bosses' lack of understanding of thermal comfort.
"I was one of the people who couldn't strip off another layer and tried without success to explain to people why the aircon wasn't broken, it just wasn't made for the office set-up. "I used to date a fridgie and he explained that when airconditioning systems are installed, they are done with an empty space in mind, before offices are enclosed and partitions put in place, so when the cubicles are erected, it affects air flow and therefore you will find some areas are much cooler than others."
That's why some closed-in offices have an aircon vent blasting; others have no vent and occupants swelter. "Often they are all operating from the same switch so for person A to be comfortable, person B has to dress for the Arctic." But giving staff access to the switch usually means the system quickly fails as it is getting put up then down every 10 minutes.
"Unless aircon units can be adjusted every time an office layout is changed, staff should keep in mind that if you're cold, you have the option to add another layer of clothes but if someone is hot, there are only so many layers they can remove, so it is fairer to run a bit cooler than warmer."
Source: C.James, 2015, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 September: http://www.smh.com.au/small-business/managing/is-your-office-too-hot-20150825-gj74mr.html#ixzz3l1nVUWsR