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Do Women Work Better When Warmer? Gender and the effect of temperature on cognitive performance

By Joe Scholz, Director, QED

They call it the "battle of the thermostat" and a recent study shows that it may have a real effect on workers' productivity.

The study published by Plos One is considered the first to focus on how thermostat settings affect cognitive performance, with women showing statistically relevant increases in performance in warmer conditions.

Office HVAC systems are often set according to a 1960’s formula based on the metabolism of a 40yo man weighing 70KG. The study, undertaken in Berlin, raises questions over whether this should remain the case.

Researchers Tom Chang and Agne Kajackaite asked 543 college students to take different tests in a room set to various temperatures between 16.19 to 32.57°C.

The tests included:

  • Adding up numbers task (Math)
  • Words building task (Verbal)
  • Cognitive reflection test (CRT)

The relationship between performance in math and verbal tasks and temperature is different for males and females, with males performing best at lower temperatures and females performing best at higher temperatures.

"People invest a lot in making sure their workers are comfortable and highly productive," said Tom Chang, associate professor of finance and business economics at the University Of Southern California Marshall School Of Business.

“The most surprising thing about the experiments was how temperature changes don't have to be extreme to have a noticeable effect,” he added.

Women's improved performance in warmer conditions appeared to be largely due to an increase in the number of the answers they submitted, with the error rate remaining broadly consistent.

So what is the ideal temperature setting?

Finding the ideal office temperature is not easy, particularly in Australia where outside temperatures can range greatly and hence our clothing choices can differ significantly from one day to the next. Also, as a general rule men will wear heavier clothing than women.

Add all of this together and it is easy to see why there is quite often a note next to the thermostat that says something along the lines of “Do Not Touch!”

However, if your team is mostly female it is worth considering bumping up the thermostat just a couple of degrees to get the most out of your team.

This is backed up by researchers, Chang and Kajackaite, who suggest most offices would benefit from turning the dial up. “Even if you care only about money, or the performance of your workers, you may want to crank up the temperature in your office buildings," Chang said.

Full study and results can be found here.

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