'Battle of the thermostat': Study confirms women are more productive in warmer offices

Businesses 'should take environmental factors like temperature more seriously'

Sabrina Barr
Wednesday 22 May 2019 17:44 BST
Anne Hathaway in 'The Intern'
Anne Hathaway in 'The Intern' (Rex Features)

Anyone who works in an office will be aware of the politics that come into play when air conditioning is brought into the conversation.

Some like it hot, some like it cold... it's impossible to please everyone, especially when women and men are affected by temperature in different ways.

However, according to a new study, vamping up the thermostat could prove beneficial for the productivity of female workers.

New research conducted by the University of Southern California (USC) has found that increasing room temperature can improve women's ability to complete certain cognitive tasks.

For the study, published in the 22 May edition of scientific journal Plos One, researchers assessed 543 students at a laboratory in Berlin.

The participants took part in three different tasks – a maths test, a verbal test and a cognitive reflection test, a task which examines intuition versus further reflection.

During each session, the temperature in the room was set at various levels ranging from 16C to 32C.

The researchers found that women performed better on the maths and verbal tasks in higher temperatures.

Meanwhile, the male participants didn't perform as well on the same tasks when the thermostat was increased, instead performing better when in a cooler environment, although the relationship between temperature and performance was less dramatic for men.

Ability to perform well in the cognitive reflection test was not affected by room temperature for the female or male participants.

"It's been documented that women like warmer indoor temperatures than men – but the idea until now has been that it's a matter of personal preference," said Tom Chang, associate professor of finance and business economics at the USC Marshall School of Business and co-author of the study.

"What we found is it's not just whether you feel comfortable or not, but that your performance on things that matter – in math and verbal dimensions, and how hard you try – is affected by temperature."

Professor Chang added that one of the most surprising aspects of the study was that it wasn't a case of extreme changes of temperature affecting productivity.

"It's not like we're getting to freezing or boiling hot," the professor states. "Even if you go from 60 to 75 degrees [15C to 23C​], which is a relatively normal temperature range, you still see a meaningful variation in performance."

In the maths test, the students were required to add up five two-digit numbers without using a calculator.

For the verbal task, they were asked to create as many German words as they could by using a set of 10 given letters.

For the cognitive reflection test, the participants were asked a series of questions, all of which were designed so that the answer the students were likely to answer intuitively was incorrect.

Professor Chang co-authored the study with Dr Agne Kajackaite, head of research group Ethics and Behavioural Economics at WZB Berlin Social Science Centre in Germany.

The authors noted that the improvement of women's cognitive performances in warmer temperatures was influenced by an increase in effort, which led to an increase in the number of answers they submitted.

Meanwhile, in warmer temperatures they noted a decrease in effort among the male participants, and thus a decrease in the number of answers they submitted.

According to Professor Chang and Dr Kajackaite, their study's findings will "raise the stakes for the battle of the thermostat".

The academics recommend that the thermostat be set at higher than average temperatures in mixed-gender workplaces in order to improve productivity.

"People invest a lot in making sure their workers are comfortable and highly productive," Professor Chang stated.

"This study is saying even if you care only about money, or the performance of your workers, you may want to crank up the temperature in your office buildings."

Professor Chang told The Independent that while an optimal temperature at which women should work to improve their productivity cannot be confirmed by the study, the findings indicate that in a mixed-gender workplace, the thermostat should be set at around 24C.

In light of this, the professor believes businesses "should take environmental factors like temperature more seriously, even if you care only about profit or worker productivity".

"The results also shine a light on the fact that we are all different and that we likely each have a different 'optimal' working condition," the professor added.

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