What is causing your office air con wars?

If you work in an office with an air conditioning unit then you probably fall into one of two main camps: those who are a comfortable temperature when the AC is turned on, and those who are freezing and resorting to fingerless gloves and extra layers of clothing in the office. The former group is typically made up of males, while the latter group is typically made up of females.

So why exactly are most women so cold in the office?

In a study carried out by researchers at Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, it was discovered that the average climate control system in the workplace is designed to provide a comfortable working temperature for men. The resting metabolic rate for women is typically 20 to 30% lower than for men, which leaves them feeling much cooler at the same temperature.

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Current air conditioning standards are the result of a study that was carried out in the 1960s, and was based on the resting metabolic rate of one 40 year old man who weighed 11 stone.

As part of the recent study in the Netherlands, researchers analysed men and women performing light office work whilst dressed in a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. The results showed that the optimum temperature for women was 24.5°C, while men worked best at 22°C.

Clearly this 2.5 degree difference is where the air conditioning wars in offices up and down the country stem from.

Further evidence supports these differences

A 1998 study by researchers at the University of Utah found that although women had higher core temperatures than men (36.5°C versus 36.3°C), the temperature of their hands was consistently colder. The men in the study had an average hand temperature of 32.2°C, while for women the average hand temperature was 30.6°C.

The main reason for these differences in core and hand temperatures is the size and composition difference between the male and female body. Women typically have more body fat than men, and fat is good at keeping the heat in. However, body fat is not as good at generating heat as muscle is, and men typically have a higher muscle percentage than women, so therefore they generate more body heat than women.

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Colder employees are less productive

If you work in an office where the air conditioning means the working environment is a few degrees too cold for you, it can lead to physical problems, physiological effects, and reduced productivity.

  • Physical problems: Cold temperatures can make you hunch over and tense your muscles to keep warm, which can result in poor posture, sore shoulders, and a sore back.
  • Physiological problems: Cold temperatures can lead to thicker blood, increased blood pressure, and tightening of the airways, so those who are vulnerable to illness or suffer from chronic conditions could be in real danger in a cold office.

A 2004 study carried out by Professor Alan Hedge et al at Cornell’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory found that when office temperatures were increased from 20°C to 25°C, typing errors dropped by 44%, and typing output increased by 150%.

So what is the answer?

Of course, employers can’t please all of their employees all of the time, but the research into air conditioning and office temperatures is worth bearing in mind when they are planning the layout of the office.

As an employer there are a number of measures you can take to help ensure your workforce remain as happy and productive as possible:

  • Sit those who feel the cold furthest away from the AC unit so that they are not in the direct line of the cold stream of arctic air.
  • Likewise, sit those who prefer cooler temperatures closer to the AC unit of in the line of fire so that they can enjoy the full benefits of the cooling air.
  • Offer free hot and cold drinks so that cold employees can warm up, and warm employees can cool down throughout the day.
  • Alter your company dress code to allow the wearing of short sleeved shirts for men, and sweaters and smart scarves for women and those who feel the cold.

The biological make-up of men and women means that air conditioning is probably something we’ll never be able to agree on, but taking some of the measures above can certainly help to make your workplace a much more harmonised and productive environment.



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