Want More Productive Workers? Adjust Your Thermostat

If your office is a meat locker in the summer and a sauna in the winter, your employees' productivity and collaboration suffer—probably more than you think.

Some years back, the Campbell Soup Company stumbled upon a marketing insight worthy of Don Draper.

If you want to predict when people will buy soup, the reasoning goes, you have to look beyond the product. It’s not about the depth of the soup’s flavor, the color of its packaging, or even its price. In fact, it’s hardly about Campbell’s at all.

It’s about the weather.

Consumers buy more soup when conditions are cold, damp, or windy. The question facing Campbell’s was this: How do you leverage this information into sales?

So they did something brilliant. They linked the frequency of their radio buys to the weather of each station. To determine when ads would be purchased, they developed an algorithm called the "Misery Index," which uses meteorological data to track weather patterns. To this day, if you’re hearing an ad for soup on the radio, there’s a good chance you’re either carrying an umbrella or wearing a coat.

The rationale behind Campbell’s Misery Index is simultaneously clever and obvious, a hallmark of game-changing ideas. But it also raises an interesting question.

If a drop in temperature changes what we buy, what does it do to the way we think?

Typing With Gloves

If you sit near a vent, share legroom with a space heater, or use your desk to store outerwear, the question warrants serious consideration. One of the painful ironies of office life is that we can never quite get the temperature right. We spend our summers shivering in meat lockers and our winters sweating in saunas.

Central air hasn’t made us comfortable, so much as made us uncomfortable in a different way.

The experience isn’t simply unpleasant. It comes with a real financial cost.

To find out just how much, Cornell University researchers conducted a study that involved tinkering with the thermostat of an insurance office. When temperatures were low (68 degrees, to be precise), employees committed 44% more errors and were less than half as productive as when temperatures were warm (a cozy 77 degrees).

Cold employees weren’t just uncomfortable, they were distracted. The drop in performance was costing employers 10% more per hour, per employee. Which makes sense. When our body’s temperature drops, we expend energy keeping ourselves warm, making less energy available for concentration, inspiration, and insight.

Feeling Cold? You Might Just Be Lonely

And it’s not just performance that dips. It’s our impression of the people around us. In a fascinating study reported in the prestigious journal Science, psychologists uncovered a link between physical and interpersonal warmth. When people feel cold physically, they’re also more likely to perceive others as less generous and caring.

In a word, they view them as cold.

When we’re warm, on the other hand, we let our guard down and view ourselves as more similar to those around us. A forthcoming paper from researchers at UCLA even shows that brief exposure to warmer temperatures leads people to report higher job satisfaction.

Why the link between physical and mental warmth?

Psychologists argue it has to do with the way we’re built. The same area of the brain that lights up when we sense temperature—the insular cortex—is also active when we feel trust and empathy toward another person. When we experience warmth, we experience trust. And vice versa.

Neurologically, it seems we have our wires crossed. Except it’s not a coincidence.

There’s a reason we associate warmth with trust, and it’s because doing so promotes our survival, especially early on. As infants, keeping close to our caretaker is vital to staying alive, which is one reason we’re programmed to seek out warmth. Throughout our lives, we associate warmth (a hug) with affection (this person loves me). It’s a connection that grows stronger with every intimate embrace.

Why Lonely People Take More Showers

Because our minds unconsciously link warmth with affection, we’re more sensitive to cold temperatures than we think.

Research shows that when we experience cold temperatures, we’re especially likely to feel isolated. In fact, countering the experience of isolation is one reason people spend more time in the shower when they’re feeling down.

The unconscious desire for physical warmth is thought to be the reason lonely people bathe longer, more frequently, and use higher temperatures.

The Warmth-Productivity Link

We know that cold temperatures worsen productivity. What new research is showing is that it can also corrode the quality of our relationships.

And this, ultimately, is why office temperature matters.

Great workplaces aren’t simply the product of good organizational policies. They emerge when employees connect with one another and form meaningful relationships that engender trust. What’s often overlooked is that connections don’t operate in a vacuum.

It seems obvious that the temperature of a restaurant or theater can alter our experience. So why do we continue to neglect it in the workplace?

[Image: Flickr user Georges Petrequin]

[Image: Flickr user Ryan Hyde]

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37 Comments

  • LizD

    I have to agree with  , when I'm cold I want to be elsewhere and I find a reason for it. Of course I'm the obsessive kinda of person that when I'm comfortable I can get lost in my work and the whole day will go by without me noticing. 68 is positively freezing to me when I'm sitting at a desk, it has to be at least 71 for me to at least be comfortable. Basically if I'm cold I'm out the door as soon as its 5pm, when its warm I've been known to stay until 9pm sometimes because I don't want to leave a project unfinished.

  • ~The CloudEpsilon ~

    explains in part why the South of a country [in the Northern Hemisphere] is generally considered to be populated with 'warmer' people...

  • Dom

    Recall the phrase, it's not the heat, it's the humidity.  How a person feels comfort at 77 deg is dependent on the relative humidity of the air.  Refrigerated A/C removes moisture from the air.  In very hot weather, A/C running continuously will make 77 deg feel much colder than if the outside air is closer to the temperature of set point inside, especially if the outside air is moist.  So I agree with ATURNER.  In the case of restaurants, a lot depends on the time you enter the restaurant and how many people are in the restaurant.  Most managers crank down the room temperature below their ideal setting because when a bunch of hot bodies fill the room, most A/Cs cannot catch up; and once you go above the ideal set point, you will have an room full of uncomfortable people. 

  • Bgwg

    We keep our home at 77 & there are 4 men in house in San Antonio, Texas. Very comfortable for all. People can gradually shift their comfort zone at least a few degrees if they are wiling to try.

  • Aturner

    Was this a scientific study? If it was scientific, then correlation does not mean causation. There are so many factors that affect productivity and levels of comfort. These conclusions seem overly simplistic. Regarding the reference to restaurants, having spent years in an office setting and also years in the restaurant business, I can tell you that both have the same problem: You cannot please everyone with one temperature setting. There will always be people for whom one temperature is too cold while others find it perfect or too hot.

  • Dom

    I love these responses ... they read the results of researchers from reputable learning organizations, using the scientific method, and their conclusion is ... nah, their findings are BS because I FEEL differently.  Yeah, and I feel that dinosaurs roamed the earth along with Jesus just after the universe was created in 7 days.

  • SteveDK

    While anecdotal evidence is dubious, not every scientific study gets it right. Worse, the mainstream press does a terrible job reporting on many (if not most) studies. Sometimes later studies refute findings that were once reported as being important and momentous, but turn out to be mistaken. See: http://arstechnica.com/staff/2... for examples. 

    People should be skeptical of a news article that does not give citations of the original journal articles. I would really like to read the materials and methods and results of the paper this article is reporting.

  • Dom

    The problem is that office temperatures are set for the heaviest people and those suffering from hot flashes.  Everyone else's comfort is ignored.  The expectation is those who overheat easier canot take off clothing, but those who are freezing are expected to put on more clothing.  However, it is very difficult to type wearing gloves.   Unfortunately we Americans are getting heavier, which annoys me on so many levels, none the least of which is having to freeze so the heavies can keep their fat bodies comfortable.  Stop eating everything you see!  Eating is for survival, not pleasure!

  • Lugardunoca

    Well you can use thermic cloths under your office suit, this cloths are not thick, by the other hand when the room temperature is above 71 degrees is just impossible to expect us to get naked so you can be cozy and warm like if you where in bed; excuse me but I get migraines and my head star feeling heavy if the office is not at least 71 degrees, less could be even better

  • Rand Gloger

    In the winter, if the temperature is below 70F in my store, my customers complain.  In the summer, if the temperature is above 75F in my store, my customers complain.  Maintaining a steady temperature within that 5 degree window is a great idea.  The electric company loves it especially during peak hours.

  • Matt_Shaffer

    What a load of crap and my office is warm right now. Who the hell keeps an office at 77 degrees? No one keeps a thermostat that high at home. What a bs article

  • Guest

    Maybe it's because I'm a thin woman, but I'm cold below 76 or 77. You can put on sweaters, but it's hard to warm your hands and face.  Especially with typing!

  • Jacque Vilet

    I don't like thermostat turned to 60, but I would feel like I were in a sauna if the temp was 77.  I feel sluggish when temp is higher than 70.   Sorry, but I feel more energy when temp is lower.  Maybe it's my internal thermostat.   I live in Dallas and have lived in Houston, Florida and Singapore.   Had a constant headache due to temperature and humidity.  I turn on the air conditioner when humidity is overwhelming to dry things out.   I just can't concentrate at work when too hot and turn into a raving . . . . grump

  • Derek

    This is so subjective I can't believe it is presented as "fact" - I'm the opposite. If you make the office warm, my productivity will plummet as I look for an escape from the heat. We have conference rooms with western window exposure that run around 77 degrees or more in the afternoon and those meetings are always less productive.

  • Len Murphy

    I don't have a hard time believing that the 68 degree temperature would negatively impact productivity for insurance professionals working at their desks.  However, I really wonder about the 77 degree part of the study.  My observation in the Midwest is that anyone wearing business attire such as long pants, socks and shoes, a long sleeve shirt, and maybe a t-shirt under the button down would be uncomfortable at 77 degrees and less productive than they would be at 72 or 73. 77 is really warm.  For the study, I wonder what the dress code was; I wonder what time of year it was and what region of the country it was.  To be comfortable at 77, I would expect people to be dressed for a summer climate (sandals or flip-flops, shorts, dresses, or skirts) and possibly be accustomed to warmer temperatures because it was the middle of summer or the office was in Florida.  The article would be more helpful if it had more detail.

  • JamesGE

    In my home office, my ideal temperature is 70F. Over 75, if I do more than type or talk, I get hot and uncomfortable. My business partner is comfortable in the 78F-85F range.

    All people experience "neutral" at different temperatures. That is the problem with studies that "average" results for individuals.