Why are offices so cold? (Or hot!)

Companies are seeking technology solutions for thermal discomfort at work.

September 09, 2021

Most office workers are well acquainted with the feeling that the temperature is never quite right.

“The highest volume of work orders in any building is typically the hot/cold call,” says Jim Whittaker, Global Product Owner, Engineering Services, JLL.

But imagine being able to regulate the temperature of any individual workspace, to personalize it like the height of a chair.

For some this is already a reality. Companies are testing ways to mitigate thermal discomfort, whether it’s with proprietary technology for individual controls or through the creation of hot and cold zones within the office.

“Control over the environment is a greater focus now because people don’t want to lose the sense of control they had at home,” says Jennifer Hill, Global Product Owner, Sustainability Integration, JLL. “When people make decisions about returning to the office, thermal comfort is a part of their overall comfort level with the arrangement.”

Reporting live from the tundra (or desert)

So why are offices so cold (or hot, depending on who you ask) in the first place? The answer is the source of heated debate, ranging from gender to climate change.

In the U.S., building temperatures must fall within ranges set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). These standards, which were created in 1966 and have been updated periodically over the years, are based on two factors: the average metabolic rate of the person, and the clothing they are wearing. 

The first set points were originally derived from studies of a 40-year-old, 154 pound man who, in office environments, would be wearing a suit.

But a 2015 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change noted that women’s average metabolic rate was 20 percent to 32 percent lower than rates in the standard chart used to set building temperature. Their conclusion? Buildings should “reduce gender-discriminating bias in thermal comfort” and set temperatures at slightly warmer levels.

Of course, not all women run colder than men. And many men, too, suffer in cold offices during summer months. 

“Cold temperatures in offices during summer months have been called ‘women’s winter,’ but that moniker is too generalized and discounts the fact that everyone, regardless of gender, has a different definition of comfort,” says Julia Georgules, Director of Research, East and Canada, JLL. “Concurrently, there is a move toward more personalized tech in the workplace and I see that becoming the more prevalent conversation moving forward, acknowledging that there is a need to create more comfortable and inclusive workplaces for everyone.”


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Tech solutions

High-tech solutions that allow for personalization exist, but they are not widespread or easily replicable.

One tech company has a prototype of an air duct system that allows each employee to control airflow is employing an air diffuser into each desk.

At Deloitte’s headquarters in Amsterdam, workers set their temperatures and lighting preferences in an app. When they adjust the temperature, it adjusts the valves in the pipes above their head. Each valve controls the temperature of roughly four desks, however, so it requires some communication so as not to reignite the thermostat wars all over again.

Lower tech solutions also exist. After surveying employees to “crowd-source ideal temperatures,” offices can be divided into hotter and cooler zones, Hill says.

Despite the challenges, it is likely that more individualized cooling technology will progress in coming years and become more readily available.

“The approach by which people are addressing individual air quality is developing quickly because of the pandemic,” says Hugh Creasy, Global Product Performance Manager, JLL. “We’re seeing products that sit on individual’s desks to both scrub the air and modify air flow to prevent dirty air from entering your sphere. There’s a fascinating opportunity to advance these products for personal temperature control, too.”

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