Turning up the thermostat at the office may result in higher productivity for women, according to a study which found that women performed better on math and verbal tasks at higher temperatures.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that as temperatures increased, so did women’s performance on tasks, while the opposite was true for men.
When temperatures were lowered, men performed better, although the relationship between temperature and men’s performance was less pronounced.
The study suggests that gender is an important factor not only in determining the impact of temperature on comfort but also on productivity and cognitive performance.
“It’s been documented that women like warmer indoor temperatures than men — but the idea until now has been that it’s a matter of personal preference,” said Tom Chang, an associate professor at the University of Southern California (USC) in the US.
“What we found is it’s not just whether you feel comfortable or not, but that your performance on things that matter — in math and verbal dimensions, and how hard you try — is affected by temperature,” Chang said.
A total of 543 students participated in the laboratory experiment, which was conducted in Berlin.
For each session, room temperatures were set at various increments ranging from about 16 degrees Celsius to about 33 degrees Celsius.
In each period, participants were required to complete three different tasks — monetarily incentivised based on performance — within a given amount of time.
In the math test, participants were asked to add up five two-digit numbers without using a calculator.
For the verbal task, participants were asked to build as many German words as possible given a set of ten letters.
In the last task, the cognitive reflection test, participants were given a set of questions framed so that the intuitive answer was the wrong answer.
The researchers found a meaningful relationship between room temperature and how well participants scored on the math and verbal tasks, while temperature had no effect for men and women on the cognitive reflection test.
“One of the most surprising things we learned is this isn’t about the extremes of temperature,” Chang said.
“It’s not like we’re getting to freezing or boiling hot. Even if you go from 60 to 75 degrees, which is a relatively normal temperature range, you still see a meaningful variation in performance,” he said.
The researchers note that the increase in female cognitive performance at warmer temperatures appears to be driven largely by an increase in the number of submitted answers, which they interpreted as evidence that the increased performance is driven in part by an increase in effort.
Similarly, the decrease in male cognitive performance was partially driven by a decrease in the number of submitted answers.
The increase in female cognitive performance is larger and more precisely estimated than the decrease in male performance.
The researchers said the results “raise the stakes for the battle of the thermostat,” suggesting that it is not just about comfort, but also about cognitive performance and productivity.
The findings suggest that in mixed gender workplaces, the temperatures should be set significantly higher than current standards to increase productivity.
“People invest a lot in making sure their workers are comfortable and highly productive,” Chang said.
“This study is saying 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,” he said.