The unexpected reason why the push to get workers back to the office is even worse for women (and how Embr Wave can help)
You’ve seen the headlines: after nearly three years of offering full- or part-time Work From Home options to their employees, companies ranging from Google and Apple to AT&T and JPMorgan Chase are making it mandatory to come back to the office, and many of those being called back are not happy about it. A 2022 survey of over 30,000 workers showed a majority (64-71%) of respondents stating they’d consider finding a new job if they were required to work in the office full time.
The pandemic had a disproportionately negative economic impact on women, with record numbers dropping out of the workforce and a significantly slower recovery compared to men. The numbers were so stark that some economists began referring to the last three years a She-cession. Now, just as things are beginning to look brighter, stricter Return to Office (RTO) policies may see women suffering more than men for yet another reason: the office thermostat.
For many women, heading back to the workplace this summer means digging out the trusty old office sweater. But shivering at your desk is more than just an inconvenience—new research reveals that extreme air conditioning is measurably worse for women compared to men when it comes to impacts on productivity, performance, and cognitive function.
Wherever you fall on the RTO debate, one thing remains just as true now as it did pre-pandemic: for many workers, office temperatures don’t work.
“I’ve been typing all morning and I can barely feel my fingertips.”
This is particularly true for women, who often find themselves uncomfortably cold no matter what the season outside. It’s become a bit of a meme: the struggle of going from a sweltering hot subway straight to a workspace that could be mistaken for a meat locker.
In a recent viral video captioned “Women’s Winter has begun,” TikTok user Heather Abraham goes from desk to desk in her office asking her coworkers (almost all female and all sporting some combination of blankets, sweaters, and jackets) to describe just how cold they are on this 90° day: “Maggie actually has two blankets,” she notes. Another woman volunteers, “I’ve been typing all morning and I can barely feel my fingertips.”
Why So Cold?
Office buildings in the United States are commonly “overcooled” during warmer weather, with thermostats set to temperatures lower than what is needed to keep the occupants comfortable. The current recommended indoor temperature range in the summer is 73° - 79°F, but offices and retail spaces are trending even colder than this standard, often falling between 68° - 72°F. (Fun fact: the idea for Embr Wave began thanks to overcooling, when the founders were MIT students trying to survive working on a project in an excessively air-conditioned lab one summer.)
Our frigid office temps owe a lot to thermal standards that were designed with men’s bodies in mind. Commercial heating and cooling systems are set to a standard intended to provide comfort for an “average” worker… who, when that number was initially calculated in the 1930s, was likely a 155-lb 40-year-old white man wearing a business suit.
The formula was meant to determine the ideal indoor temperature range to support this man’s metabolic rate—basically, how much energy the body uses while at rest to keep everything running smoothly. When the environment gets hotter or cooler than this ideal range, the body has to work harder to maintain its balance.
More recent research has shown what we already knew anecdotally: these numbers simply don’t add up for women’s bodies, and women in these spaces are freezing. Men typically have higher metabolic rates compared to women. So when the thermostat is calibrated to keep Mr. Joe Average’s body humming at a steady pace, women’s bodies are having to work harder just to keep themselves functioning properly (never mind trying to focus on complex tasks or to produce their best work).
“Just wear a sweater.”
So what’s the big deal? Can’t you just throw on a Snuggie or buy a thermal vest for the office and call it problem solved? Beyond the environmental and economic costs of overcooling (which amount to an estimated $10 billion in wasted electricity every year in the United States alone), there are serious consequences for women that go far beyond fashion faux pas.
Women don’t just feel the cold more than men; they’re also impacted by it more negatively when it comes to performance and productivity. While earlier studies showed that cold temperatures can cause workers of either gender to be less productive and make more errors, recent research suggests that women’s cognitive abilities are more affected by cold compared to those of men.
In a 2019 study, over 500 college students were given math and verbal problems in settings that ranged from 60° - 90°F. The results showed that women performed better at higher temperatures and men performed better at lower temperatures—but men’s cognitive function wasn’t as negatively affected by heat as women’s was by cold. When it came to solving math problems, for every 1.8 degree increase in temperature, women got 1.76% more correct answers while men got 0.63% fewer correct answers. “To put the magnitude of these effects in perspective,” the study authors note, “the well-known, long-standing gap in performance between high school boys and girls on the math portion of the SAT is approximately 4%.”
“Women increased their performance on math problems by 1.76% for every 1.8 degree increase in temperature”
In other words, when it comes to mixed-gender environments, women’s performance is being held back more by having to work in cold offices than men’s would be if the thermostat were adjusted up by a few degrees.
Hot Flashes in Cold Places
It might seem at first that overcooled offices would be ideal for women experiencing hot flashes. Hot flashes make you hot, so a cold office should be exactly what you want, right? The reality is that the average hot flash lasts between 30 seconds to five minutes, and the factors that make women feel colder (like higher fat-to-muscle ratio and lower metabolic rate) remain true when the hot flashes aren’t occurring.
For many women, menopause may just mean they’re subjected to an additional level of temperature extremes: not only going from the heat of the outdoors to the chill of the office, but then also going from trying to concentrate on work while shivering to suddenly burning up with the onset of a hot flash… and then being wracked by chills in the sweaty aftermath.
Solving Thermal Inequality at Work
Adjusting office temperature standards to take into account the needs of women’s bodies isn’t just about fairness, it’s also good business sense. In one Cornell study, researchers estimated that the increase in productivity gained by raising temperatures slightly would be equivalent to saving “up to 12.5% of their wage costs per worker.” Plus, dialing back on the a/c means less energy use and lower electricity costs.
Beyond tweaking the thermostat settings, one thing employers can do to make the office more welcoming—and to close the thermal gender gap—is to give workers freedom to personalize their comfort with things like portable fans, heating and cooling chairs, or a smart wearable like the Embr Wave. Just giving individuals some level of control over their environment can go a long way toward improving worker happiness. According to a 2021 study on overcooling in US offices that looked at nearly 40,000 survey responses and 17,000 Twitter posts, lack of control was the factor that bothered people most.
The Embr Wave is particularly well suited to the office environment. In a UC Berkeley study, wearing Embr Wave for just three minutes was enough to make male and female participants feel an average of 5°F warmer or cooler. Unlike a desk fan or space heater, the Wave operates totally silently without disturbing anyone or anything around it, and it’s a low-power wearable that won’t risk violating fire codes. With the mobile app, users can easily select warming or cooling sensations that address their specific needs, whether it’s keeping warm while typing or discreetly fighting a sudden hot flash.
As a clinically proven solution for hot flashes, Embr Wave also provides a way for companies to retain and support valuable employees going through menopause. A recent study of 3,000 working women found that those who experienced at least one menopause symptom by age 50 were 43% more likely to leave their job by age 55, and a Bloombeg report estimated the annual global economic impact of menopause (due to lost productivity and health care costs) at $150 billion.
If businesses want to mandate their employees return to the office, addressing these thermal comfort issues is a simple way to correct a longstanding gender inequity that has been holding back women and costing businesses real money. And solving the thermostat wars may remove one more point of friction for those who are reluctant to leave the comforts of home. After all, if you don’t have to pack a Snuggie and USB-powered hand warmers into your briefcase every summer, you might find it a little easier to clock back in at the cubicle.