In Defense of Office Air-Conditioning

Everybody chill. Photo: Warner Bros./The Kobal Collection

There is probably no realm of the culture wars quite so bitter as the endless conflict between those (mostly male) who find the office temperature too hot and those (mostly female) who find it too cold. A new study has provided new grist for the latter. A study in Nature Climate Change finds that “most office buildings set temperatures based on a decades-old formula that uses the metabolic rates of men.

I come to this controversy as a Michigan native with a raging metabolism. (I play in a weekly basketball game, and after five minutes of warming up, a sweat stain will have darkened half my shirt.) These days I work from home, usually in a lightweight T-shirt and shorts. Yet with memories of long, sweaty years of office life still seared in my mind, a few points are in order in defense of America’s uncomfortably warm — and, yes, disproportionately male — office drones.

While it is true that office temperatures were set to accommodate the bodies of males 50 years ago, it does not follow that they are set to accommodate the bodies of males today. The study finds that the formula for office temperature was created in the 1960s and based on a “40-year-old man weighing about 154 pounds.” The author says, “the standard is calibrated for men’s body heat production” — but it is more accurate to say that the standard is calibrated for the men of two generations ago. In 1960s, the average American man weighed 165 pounds, and the average American woman weighed 140. But today the average man weighs 195 pounds, and the average woman weighs 166. So the formula is based on a body weight that is now less than that of the average woman.

The problem of finding a broadly acceptable office temperature is probably harder in a world where the average body mass is creeping higher, but social pressure for women to stay thin remains the same. My Twitter feed has recorded a procession of huzzahs from skinny female journalists who are nowhere near menopause.

How should an office shared by people with different preferences determine an appropriate temperature? The co-author of the study tells the New York Times that men should “stop complaining,” but he immediately proceeds to undermine his own case by opining, “If it is too warm, the behavior thing you can do is take off a piece of clothing, but you can only do that so much.

Yes, that’s the rub. In practicality, male office workers have little leeway to dress for excessive warmth. One of the unfortunate paradoxes of our culture is that the gender that generally gets colder is able to wear less in the summer, while the gender that generally gets warmer is expected to wear the same business attire year round. The notion of men wearing shorts even in completely social settings is deeply controversial. Will Welch, GQ’s style editor, summed up the current state of the matter when he wrote to the Times that “it’s acceptable to wear shorts in your own neighborhood during the day,” and “anytime you’re doing an outdoor activity: going to the park, or an outdoor concert, or a Mets game.” For men to go to work in summer in the heat-deflecting equivalent of a sleeveless top and a skirt — tank tops and shorts — lies unimaginably far outside the bounds of white-collar acceptability.

As my former colleagues from my days of office work can attest, I personally flouted social convention by working in shorts and T-shirts in the office when it got warm. But this decision reflects my unusual willingness to look ridiculous and absorb the mockery of my peers.

You can always add more layers, but you can’t get below naked. Indeed, unless you work in the porn industry, you can’t even get to, or close to, naked. A worker who feels too cold and has to wear extra layers might be uncomfortable, but a worker who feels too hot and has to strip is going to feel fired. Perhaps setting the thermostat at the level chosen by the hottest guy in the room (i.e., somebody like me) isn’t fair. But surely the asymmetrical social costs of layering up versus stripping down should enter the calculation.

In Defense of Office Air-Conditioning