This week, temperatures soared past 100 degrees in many parts of the country. But if you work in an office, chances are the temperatures indoors felt the exact opposite.
The short-sleeved shirt you were sweating in on the commute could have you searching for blankets and googling ‘space heaters for sale’ by lunch.
Although the heat outside is setting records, the summer cold front in the office is not a new phenomenon.
When air conditioning became standard in buildings in the 1950s, offices started “overcooling,” explains Salvatore Basile, the author of “Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything.” Building owners wanted to show that they offered the comfort of air conditioning, but sometimes they offered too much of it.
“One building exhibitor published an advertisement stating that people got sick after spending time in his air conditioning,” said Basile, “just to prove how cold his building was.”
But why is the office still so cold today? Experts have various answers: different bodies, and sometimes, genders, react to temperatures differently; the temperature model used is decades old; and office air-conditioning is designed for a more formal dress code.
Then there’s the belief that chilly people might just get more work done. Mark Zuckerberg famously kept Facebook, now Meta, at an uncomfortable 59 degrees to boost productivity, former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg noted in her 2013 book, “Lean In.”
Architects and engineers explain that air flow in buildings is designed for full occupancy. Few offices are currently reaching those levels as many employees work from home at least part of the workweek.
Buildings are also already designed to withstand the hottest day and don’t necessarily scale back for an average summer one.
“It is like having a car with a NASCAR engine, but you just need to go to Trader Joe’s to get some bread,” says David Lehrer, architect and communications director at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment.
This is compounded by the fact that the current model used for calculating the temperature in offices is decades old and incorrect, said Ruiji Sun, a researcher at the Center. The main issue with the model, Sun says, is that it incorrectly assumes human beings have the same response to a certain temperature.
Women, at least anecdotally, feel the chill more. Some have taken to social media to air their temperature grievances, often with the hashtag “Women’s Winter.” Pittsburgh newscaster Heather Abraham posted a video of the women in her office wearing blankets and sweaters earlier this summer.
“It was so funny because when Heather’s video came up on my feed, I had my space heater on and it was June,” said Leann Parrish, a Tik Tok creator who made a similar post voicing her frustrations with office temperatures.
Way back in 2016, a CollegeHumor sketch on YouTube poked fun at this phenomenon. Women in the office had icicles hanging from their eyebrows, while men were lathering on sunblock.
“Rarely do I hear a guy clutch their arms and shiver and say, ‘Am I the only one who’s cold in here?’ Usually it’s a woman,” said the sketch writer, Kassia Miller, who has since become a television screenwriter on such shows as “The Good Place.”
The term “Women’s Winter” raises the question, why do women seem to feel the office cold front more than men?
“Air conditioning was a sexist technology. It tended to favor men,” said Basile. “This was possibly due to biology and possibly due to men’s clothing,” which used to be suits and ties in the office.
Scientists have studied this phenomenon – but there’s wide disagreement.
“Differences in reactions to temperatures can be explained by body size, body composition, clothing and activity level,” Boris Kingma, a senior biophysics researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Applied Scientific Research, said.
According to a 2015 paper by Kingma, temperatures in office buildings appear to be based on the heat needs of a 40-year-old, 154-pound man.
Kingma said there is no conclusive evidence that different genders are wired to react to the same temperature differently. Gender-based corporate clothing norms play much more of a role.
Luckily there are ways around this, he said, such as allowing employees to wear shorts.
Japan has already jumped on this with their ‘Cool Biz’ campaign, which allows employees to wear lighter clothing to work from the months of May to September, Kingma said. Inside, buildings are set to 82 degrees Fahrenheit to conserve energy.
In addition to allowing lighter clothing in the office, another option is allowing fans, said Stefano Schavion, a professor UC Berkeley.
“Start by raising the office temperature 5 degrees, and then give people the option to use fans, either at their desk or installed into the ceiling,” says Schavion.
Those who are comfortable in the warmer temperatures can leave their fans off, and those who are not can turn on the fans.
Still uncomfortable? Request a seat change. Seats closest to the windows will be the warmest, Kingma said, while those under vents in the center of the office will offer a cool alternative.”The key is allowing people to adjust, whether that be their clothes or the air.”