No happy temperature medium

What is it with offices never being able to adjust to a moderate, agreeable temperature?

This is the worst time of year. It’s supposed to be spring, but the mornings are like winter, by the afternoon we could be in the throes of summer, and by evening we’re right back to fall.

It’s hard enough to get your house to a temperature that makes everyone happy – imagine trying to appease an entire workplace. It’s pretty much an impossible task.

TV shows and the internet would have us believe that, despite the mercury inching its way up outside, offices are notoriously, stubbornly stuck in the Ice Age. Go to any office and you’ll usually find staff with a sweater hanging on the back of their office door, just in case. I know a few people with portable heaters under their desk and still others who work all day in a winter coat. I read somewhere that a lot of workplaces have used a temperature of about 70F/21C as their default, based on an old standard that took into consideration men’s metabolic rates. As a result, in many cases, women are chillier at work than their male counterparts.

The thermostat wars in the office are nothing new, and they can be as difficult to negotiate as a Middle East peace treaty. Finding an acceptable compromise may be the quintessential catch-22 situation. Whatever the maintenance staff does, they’re sure to anger one group or the other. Of course it’s not just offices where the thermostat is difficult to get to a neutral temperature. Movie theaters, department stores, hospitals, restaurants, and grocery stores are oftentimes either too hot or too cold.

A few years ago I worked in a restaurant – a really nice one – and the biggest challenge about working there was getting the temperature right. We would set the thermostat on a reasonable temperature, something comfortable for the patrons and the staff, but someone always complained. The minute we’d turn the thermostat up one degree, it would be so stifling that it was hard to work; but turn it down one degree and people were freezing to death. There was no happy medium, and I spent more shifts than I care to remember standing for 45 seconds at a time in the middle of the walk-in freezer, just to get some relief.

Offices have to be the worst, though. For years I worked in an office environment where one section was steamy enough to give yourself a pore-cleaning facial, while the cubicles on the other side of the building were cold to the point of discomfort. Depending on the geographical location of your desk, someone was miserable. My desk was in the Arctic section, thankfully (it’s easier to find measures to warm up than cool down, in my opinion). Most of us there kept an emergency-heat supply, usually a sweater or blanket that we could throw over our shoulders, and one girl had thin gloves she’d wear when her fingers would get too stiff from cold to type. When it got really bad, we just walked down the hall to defrost.

There is actually hard data to show how a cold office can affect an employee’s performance. Testing on a group of women clearly showed that they performed better in warmer temperatures. When there was a 1-degree Celsius increase in room temperature, women’s answers to math questions rose by almost 2 percent, and verbal scores also increased. (Men scored better when working in cooler temperatures.) What most have regarded as a preference might actually be a determining factor in job performance.

The thermostat setting has turned into a battlefield between men and women at home, too, only it’s the opposite here than it is in the workplaces I talked about: I prefer cool, and he prefers warm. I don’t mind closing the window or putting on a light sweater when I’m chilly, but I pretty much crawl out of my skin when I’m too hot. He likes to set the thermostat much higher than I would. Yet, when it comes to sleeping we’re the opposite, still. I like a warm duvet, while he prefers morgue-like temperatures with a fan blowing like a 747.

Summer is coming, and though I’ll be glad to be able to look outside in the morning and not see frost on my car window, I’m not looking forward to three months of searing heat at my desk. I haven’t found the Arctic section of my workplace, but when I do I might check if there’s an extra desk in that wing.