Cold offices could actually be harming women’s cognitive performance, study suggests

The battle for the thermostat has practically become a cliché in office culture, but it looks like the reasons may not be just about comfort. A new study suggests the temperature of a room also impacts our productivity, and for men and women that cognitive sweet spot is slightly different.

Plenty of anecdotes and surveys suggest that women,generally speaking, prefer it to be warmer indoors. Nevertheless, most office buildings set their thermostat on a decades-old formula which is based on the metabolism of a 40-year-old, 70 kilogram (155 pound) man.

Now, the first study to look at how this might affect male and female cognitive performance suggests that in colder workplaces, women might be losing out in more ways than one.

The results are based on the collective tests of 543 college students, who were each given logic problems, maths questions and letter scrambles to solve in either a cooled room or one of the heated rooms, set somewhere between 16 and 32 degrees Celsius (61 to 90 F). To somewhat mimic a workplace, each of these ’employees’ was given a cash reward for every correctly answered question.

While logic scores remained relatively stable overall, the authors found that female students in general performed better on the maths and verbal tests when the room was set to warmer temperatures: at the warmer end of the 16 to 33 C range.

Especially surprising to the authors was the sheer magnitude of the differences. For instance, when there was simply a 1-degree difference in room temperature, it appeared to boost female student’s maths scores by nearly 2 percent.

On the other hand, the authors found the exact opposite trend in their male participants.

“The increase in female cognitive performance appears to be driven largely by an increase in the number of submitted answers,” the authors explain.

“We interpret this as evidence that the increased performance is driven in part by an increase in effort. Similarly, the decrease in male cognitive performance is partially driven by a decrease in observable effort.”

On the surface, it seems like a lose-lose scenario for both male and female workers, but perhaps some in this situation lose worse than others. In warmer rooms, the study found that the boost in female performance was significantly larger than the subsequent loss in male performance.

This suggests that women are more sensitive to cool rooms than men are to warm ones; if employers really want to maximise productivity in the workplace, we should turn our thermostats up ever so slightly.

Keep in mind, however, that this is the first study of its kind, and these results will need to be replicated and verified by further research, with larger sample sizes, and ideally in actual office settings.

Already, the prior literature on temperature and cognitive performance is pretty mixed, and the new study is just one small lead in a much larger and more complex picture.

“Ultimately, our results potentially raise the stakes for the battle of the thermostat, suggesting that it is not just about comfort, but also about cognitive performance and productivity,” they conclude.

This study has been published in PLOS ONE.

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