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Finding the Best Office Temperature Is Basically Impossible

Is there a universally perfect working temperature? Probably not, and trying to find it might be a wild goose chase

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It seems like offices can never be the right temperature: in the summer they’re frigid, in the winter they’re blazing, and nobody is ever happy. But there must be some ideal compromise—right?

Outside's Fitness Coach has compiled some of the many studies that have tried to quantify the universally perfect working temperature. Outside points especially to this 2006 review by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in which scientists ran through 24 studies on workplace temperature. “Indoor temperature is one of the fundamental characteristics of the indoor environment,” they point out, and it “affects several human responses, including thermal comfort, perceived air quality, sick building syndrome symptoms and performance at work.” Getting the temperature right isn’t just a matter of comfort, either. Some studies suggest that improving productivity even just a few fractions of a percent is worth from $12 to 125 billion each year. 

After reviewing the 24 studies that met their criteria, the LBL researchers found that the optimal range for workplace performance is between 70 and 75 degrees Farenheit, with the sweet spot being 71.6 degrees. 

There are some problems with this kind of study. The first is figuring out how to measure productivity of workers. Most of these studies focused on call centers, where output and productivity are easy to measure. But your work might not be so rote. And some studies suggest that the type of work might dictate exactly how hot or cold you want it. This study from 2010, for example, suggests that creative people want warmer rooms, and colder temperatures are good for keeping the minds of those in “less demanding types of work” aroused. 

Not only that, but people are really bad at telling how hot or cold it is in the first place. The same temperature can feel great one day, and too hot or cold another. Researcher William C. Howell has done studies on our incredible unreliable sense of temperature. In one experiment, he asked two groups to describe how comfortable they were in a room. He then called the groups back, and said that he lost their answers and needed them to fill out the survey again. For one group, he set the room five degrees hotter. For the other, he kept the temperature the same, but told them it had been hotter the first day. Shankar Bedantam at the Washington Post explains what happened:

Both groups reported exactly the same changes in perception of temperature and comfort; Howell's suggestion to the second group that it was warmer seems to have had the same effect as actually making the room warmer.

There is also a ton of variability between people and what they like. Everybody knows that guy who wears shorts in the snow, or the guy who’s always cold. According to one study, the key is letting people control their own temperatures. In fact, when workers can control the temperature near them, sick leave is 30 percent lower than in places that they can’t. 

So while studies might say that you’ll type your fastest at 71.6 degrees rather than 74.3, you probably won’t even be able to tell the difference. And if you could, it probably wouldn’t actually matter. Time to find something new to complain about. 

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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