There they are, the women huddled in blankets, barely able to type through their gloves. The men with sweat patches across their backs. Passive aggressive jokes about it feeling like “a refrigerator” or “a sauna”. Sighs and complaints that carry across the office. It’s the backdrop to our working summer; the Air Conditioning Wars (between the sexes).
Both sides suffer casualties, but evidence suggests that a greater number of women feel the pain. In 2015, a study was released revealing that indoor climate control systems are designed to run at optimum temperatures for men. Authored by Dr Boris Kingma and Professor Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, the study found that the systems are based on the resting metabolic rate of 40-year-old men, which can be up to 30% higher than that of women. The result? While men are more likely to feel comfortable at work, women are more likely to feel the freeze.
The negative effect this may have on women was put forward in another study last month. Research from the University of Southern California showed that women perform better at certain cognitive tasks when working in higher temperatures. Men, meanwhile, perform better at cooler temperatures.
Of course, biological trends are not absolute. “You have huge individual variation and so it’s certainly not completely explained by ‘men and women’ differences,” says Professor Marken Lichtenbelt, who worked on the 2015 study. He sites levels of obesity as a factor that has a significant effect on temperature preferences. “I always warn against controlling temperatures towards an average of a group. I really think we have to take into account individual variation.”
Rather than a group of people preferring one temperature range and another group preferring a different range, the reality is that lots of people prefer lots of different ranges. So how do we solve this rather more complicated problem?
“Most offices keep on controlling temperature as we did in the past to get a kind of average. But you can do a lot about it nowadays. You can have it so that not everywhere in the office is the same temperature,” says Professor Lichtenbelt.
“There are solutions where you can have personalised air delivery literally through your desk,” adds Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, director of the Royal Institution and the Royal Academy of Engineering’s visiting professor at Cambridge University. “But that’s quite expensive.”
“When you offer air conditioning, there is almost a preconception that the temperature bands should be tightly controlled and everyone should be able to have exactly what they want and dress exactly as they wish,” says Dr Fitzgerald. “If you offer natural ventilation, there is strong evidence that the expectations people have are of a wider variation in temperature.”
He explains that people adapt and dress accordingly “if they’ve got direct control of their immediate environment, such as controlling the opening of windows, you end up with people who are happier in an environment that has actually worse temperature control, in a way, than in an air-conditioned environment.”
And, says Professor Lichtenbelt, if you work in an office where it’s not possible to open windows “you could at least get a variation of temperature over time. And there is always some spatial variation in the office so people can talk to each other and come up with solutions”.
But if you’ve exhausted all these suggestions and still find yourself battling to feel comfortable, take consolation from Professor Lichtenbelt’s other findings. “Exposure to both heat and cold, I think, are very beneficial for your metabolic health so we should not try to avoid them too much. But the research is still continuing to get proof for the long-term effects.”
It’s a rationale that can handily be weaponised by either side the next time that you meet on the office battlefield.