How Temperature Affects Workplace Productivity : Planet Money Office temperature can affect more than comfort; a recent study shows it has serious implications for productivity. We talked to one economist who quantified the effects of temperature on men and women.
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The Battle For The Office Thermostat

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The Battle For The Office Thermostat

The Battle For The Office Thermostat

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

And I'm Cardiff Garcia. And we are joined here today by our Planet Money colleague Sarah Gonzalez. Sarah, hey.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Hey.

VANEK SMITH: And Sarah, the reason that we asked you to come into the studio today is because you and I share something, which is that we both have a little collection of, like, work blankets. Sarah, you brought yours.

GONZALEZ: I brought mine.

VANEK SMITH: Do you mind describing them (laughter)?

GONZALEZ: I brought my work blanket and my fuzzy, designated work sweater.

VANEK SMITH: That's a nice blanket. Is that - it's like a sports blanket or something?

GONZALEZ: Yeah, it's like a sports team blanket. It's just, like, small enough that it doesn't drag on the floor.

VANEK SMITH: Looks like a little airplane blanket.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, it's like an airplane blanket.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, I have my, like, oversized sweater that I always keep under my desk and my wool shawl. I mean, our office is pretty cold. Right?

GONZALEZ: They're...

VANEK SMITH: Don't you think our office is pretty cold?

GONZALEZ: They're all cold.

VANEK SMITH: They're all cold, yes. So Sarah and I are always cold. But Cardiff, you - this is not something that you tend to experience. I know this because I ask you constantly if you're also cold.

GARCIA: No. And today I think is quite common, where you've got, like, a shawl. You've got your blankets, and I'm wearing, like, my white linen summer shirt. You know, I feel like maybe it's because I bring my own extra padding, like body thickness. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: I am - I'm fine.

GONZALEZ: No.

GARCIA: I feel good. I'm not cold at all.

VANEK SMITH: Do you consider the office cold or warm? Or like, how would you characterize the temperature in the office?

GARCIA: Honestly, I almost never notice it unless it's really extreme. So on days when you guys are cold, I usually feel fine or even a little bit toasty.

VANEK SMITH: Well, OK. So I mean, this, in certain ways, is like this workplace trope. Right? Women are always cold and want the office to be warmer, and men are always overheated and want the office to be cooler.

GARCIA: Yeah. But worth noting that it's not just conventional wisdom.

VANEK SMITH: That's true.

GARCIA: This is something that has been studied. It's been documented: women tend to like it warmer than men do.

VANEK SMITH: And all this, you know, seems like just run-of-the mill workplace drama - except this is apparently affecting, Sarah Gonzalez, our productivity and the quality of our work...

GONZALEZ: Whoa.

VANEK SMITH: ...A lot. And there is a new study out from two economists that actually measured this.

GONZALEZ: Today on the show, we take on the mighty thermostat. We look at how temperature affects the productivity and cognitive abilities of men and women. And we look at how much that might be costing companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: For today's indicator, I wanted to get a little bit personal. So Sarah Gonzalez, what is your preferred office temperature? If you were in control of the thermostat, where would it be?

GONZALEZ: Eighty degrees.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: That's how I keep my apartment.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: And my husband will come home and be like, it feels like it's 80 degrees in here. And I'm like, yeah, that's what I set it at - 80 degrees.

GARCIA: You're like...

GONZALEZ: I know, right?

GARCIA: Oh, my God.

VANEK SMITH: Cardiff Garcia (laughter)...

GARCIA: Not 80 degrees. I was hoping Sarah would say something like down in the 71, 72 range so there might be some room for compromise...

VANEK SMITH: What is your preferred office temperature if you were in control of the thermostat?

GARCIA: ...Because I like it to be somewhere around, like, 68 to 70, 71 - right around there.

VANEK SMITH: To get a little more scientific about this, I talked to Tom Chang. He's an associate professor of finance and business economics at the USC Marshall School of Business and co-author of a new paper called "Battle For The Thermostat."

Welcome, Tom. How did you come up with the idea for this paper?

TOM CHANG: Well, I'm a person who has skin.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

CHANG: More immediately, though, they're really bad at getting the temperature right in my office.

VANEK SMITH: What do you mean?

CHANG: I've been having a bit of a fight for the past nine years with facilities management. The temperature in my office, when I've gone in, has varied from a low of 55.4 degrees...

VANEK SMITH: Whoa.

CHANG: ...To a high of just under 93.

VANEK SMITH: What is going on? I mean, wait. First of all, did you buy a thermometer to measure this?

CHANG: I do. I have one of those sort of Wi-Fi-enabled thermometers.

VANEK SMITH: What made you decide to do that?

CHANG: So I would have data to back up my assertion.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I love it - a true economist at heart.

CHANG: It's been nice in my office, I must say, for the past few months. And the way that worked is I basically got a bunch of us that were the most affected by temperature, and we went to the dean. And we told her - look; it's too darn hot some days. It's too - the temperature is so bad that we just go home. We can't work in our offices, and that's not good for productivity. And so she got on it. And within a few weeks, it was all fixed.

VANEK SMITH: And so Tom, how did you measure this? How did you conduct this study? 'Cause it was pretty big. I think it had, like, 500 people.

CHANG: We would get a group of subjects, and they would do an identical series of tasks. There was a verbal task, a math task - to add up five two-digit numbers at a time with no calculator. And then the verbal task was they were given a series of letters, and they would have to make as many German words - since they were German students - out of those letters as they could. The thing we did is, before they would show up, we would experimentally manipulate the temperature of the room to be anywhere from 61 degrees to 91 degrees, I think, is about as hot as we could get it.

VANEK SMITH: And what did you find?

CHANG: We found that as the temperature went up, women did substantially better, especially in math, and men did a little bit worse.

VANEK SMITH: So they did - like, 91 degrees, women were just, like, killing it. They were adding like it was their job.

CHANG: The biggest effects were if you went from, like, the 60s to 75 degrees. There's where you saw the largest effect on women. And going from 60 to 75 degrees, it was like a 10, 15% increase in the performance of women when it came to the math test.

VANEK SMITH: And what about the men?

CHANG: The men did slightly worse.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, they did slightly worse when it got warmer?

CHANG: Warmer, yes.

VANEK SMITH: And what about when it got colder, in the 60s?

CHANG: So that's when men did their best, when it was in the 60s. And their performance steadily dropped as the thermostat went up. So to go from the 60s to the 70s, like you said, it was around a 10, 15% increase in female performance, and there was about a 3% decrease in male performance.

VANEK SMITH: Were you surprised at the degree to which people's performance was affected, or was that about what you thought? Or...

CHANG: Oh, no. It was much, much larger than I thought. Right? So obviously, extreme temperatures will affect you. But we're not talking about extreme temperatures. Right? I would think going from the 60s to the low to mid-70s is a pretty standard range for an indoor environment. And yet we're finding large effects there. Again, I don't want people to overextrapolate here, but you know, we're finding 10 to 15% changes - improvements in math performance for women when you go from, you know, 60s to mid-70.

VANEK SMITH: What do you think is going on?

CHANG: I think the answer is pretty simple. I think it's just that when you're - you know, when it's too hot or you're too cold, you just don't perform at your best.

VANEK SMITH: And you made a recommendation, actually, in the paper for workplaces.

CHANG: So if you have a gender-balanced office, the optimal temperature is around 75 degrees. So there's a number for...

GONZALEZ: Seventy-five? Oh, that's...

CHANG: Seventy-five.

GONZALEZ: ...Pretty warm. That's way warmer than our office, for instance.

CHANG: That's the skin-melting...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, you hate this.

CHANG: ...Temperature for me.

VANEK SMITH: You hate the conclusion of your own research.

CHANG: Oh, yes. My advice to a business or any office would be - look; temperature matters. Right? So if half your workers are coming to work with - you know, keep blankets in their desks or have illicit space heaters somewhere or, alternatively, half your workers are sweating through their T-shirts, that's something you want to take seriously. What the research says is that if, as a business, you care only about profits or productivity, you should still take the comfort of your workers into account, as it has the real potential to significantly affect your bottom line.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: You have one office...

VANEK SMITH: It says 74.6.

GONZALEZ: Impossible.

VANEK SMITH: And there is absolutely no way that's true.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I don't - I don't think this thermo thing is right.

GONZALEZ: I have had a problem with this thermostat for a while.

VANEK SMITH: This thing hates women.

GONZALEZ: Yes. A hundred percent, it is a sexist thermostat.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: We're at the stage of blaming this - the thermostat.

VANEK SMITH: Do you think it's 75 degrees in here?

GARCIA: I mean - can I just make a point here?

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: Yes.

GARCIA: 'Cause I want to stand in solidarity with...

VANEK SMITH: I know.

GARCIA: ...My freezing female colleagues.

VANEK SMITH: I know. You're very good this way, Cardiff.

GARCIA: But here, this really is a tough one because it is almost the very definition of a zero-sum game. Like, every degree warmer in the direction of somebody who wants it to be 75 or 80 degrees is one degree warmer than, like, I personally would like it.

GONZALEZ: Well, except that it being warmer is not affecting your productivity at work. And it is affecting ours. So like...

VANEK SMITH: I mean, it is a little bit.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, a little bit.

VANEK SMITH: But not that much.

GONZALEZ: Not as much as women.

GARCIA: Yeah. But Sarah, productivity isn't everything. All right?

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: It's uncomfortable.

GONZALEZ: You could...

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Maybe they need to make a boy, like, professional shorts - like, male work-appropriate shorts, you know?

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA: Or I could quit.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: This episode was produced by Constanza Gallardo, fact-checked by Emily Lang and edited by Paddy Hirsch. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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