Study Shows Freezing Office Temperatures Affect Women's Productivity

May 26, 2019
Originally published on May 26, 2019 3:31 pm

Maybe you know colleagues who keep a sweater or a blanket at their desks to stay warm as the air conditioning tries to ice them out. Alternatively, maybe you have a co-worker who always comments on how warm the space is.

Either way, it's evident that the battle for the thermostat is being waged in offices and homes across the United States.

It's the debate that Tom Chang and his wife have been having for more than a decade.

Chang is an associate professor of finance and business economics at the University of Southern California. He says that their "vigorous discussion" is, in part, what prompted him to study the effect of temperature on people's cognitive performance.

He, along with Agne Kajackaite of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, took 543 German college students, put them in a room and made them take tests at different temperatures — ranging from as low as 61 degrees to as high as 91 degrees.

The study showed a difference in performance between men and women depending on the temperature.

"As the temp went up, women did better on math and verbal tasks, and men did worse," Chang says. "And the increase for women in math and verbal tasks was much larger and more pronounced than the decrease in performance of men."

In other words, the warmer the room, the better the women did on the tests overall.

But the point of the study isn't to say whether there is an ideal office temperature, Chang says.

"I think, if anything, what I want people to take away from this study is that we're all a little different here and that one size doesn't fit all," he says. "More broadly, I think we should be more aware that environmental factors, like temperature, have a much bigger impact on your day-to-day lives than we generally give them credit for."

Chang says if you see half your workers keeping blankets at their desks, or sweating through their shirts, maybe consider changing the temperature.

"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," Chang says.

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SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

Does this sound familiar?

KATE CALNAN: I'm hot all the time. It's 51 degrees outside, and my windows are open in my office right now.

DAVIS: That's Kate Calnan from Woodenville, Wash. But Kris McGuire from Greenville, S.C., brings multiple sweaters to work.

KRIS MCGUIRE: It was like an ice rink back there 12 months out of the year.

DAVIS: The battle for the thermostat is being waged in offices and homes across the nation.

TOM CHANG: This is also a - let's say a vigorous discussion I've been having with my wife for a decade-plus.

DAVIS: That's Tom Chang. He's an associate professor of finance and business economics at the University of Southern California. That discussion, in part, prompted him to study the effect of temperature on people's cognitive performance. He, along with Dr. Agne Kajackaite of the Berlin Social Science Center, took 543 German college students, put them in a room and made them take tests at different temperatures - from as low as 61 degrees to as high as 91.

CHANG: As the temperature went up, women did better on math and verbal tasks, and men did worse. And the increase for women in math and verbal tasks was much larger and more pronounced than the decrease in performance of men.

DAVIS: In other words, the warmer the room, the better the women did on the tests overall. So is there an ideal office temperature? Chang says that's not the takeaway.

CHANG: I think if anything, what I want people to take away from this study is that we're all a little different here and that one size doesn't fit all. More broadly, I think we should be more aware that environmental factors, like temperature, have a much bigger impact on our day-to-day lives than we generally give them credit for.

DAVIS: His advice, if you see half your co-workers keeping blankets at their desks or sweating through their shirts, maybe consider changing the temperature because...

CHANG: Our research says that even if, as a business, you care only about profit or productivity, you should still take the comfort of your workers into account, as it will affect the bottom line.

DAVIS: As for that discussion with his wife, she won. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.