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Australians are freezing themselves into being less productive: USYD Professor

April 3, 2017

Has your workplace gone to heavy on the air conditioning? Photo: Thinkstock

Are you locked in a constant battle with your co-workers over who has control of the office temperature?

Well here’s some ammunition for those of you sitting at your desks shivering: Australian offices are typically at least two degrees colder than is optimum, and it’s having an impact on productivity levels, not to mention our energy consumption.

That’s the verdict of Professor Richard de Dear of the University of Sydney, who leads the university’s Indoor Environmental Quality Lab and spoke last week at the 2017 Total Facilities conference.

“Written standards have been in place for a very long time, about optimum temperatures and we’ve found practice very rarely matches guidleiness,” Professor de Dear said.

“More often than not it errs on the side of overcooling. You’ll find 22 degrees Celsius as the typical set temperature in offices, typically two to three degrees below the standards the guidelines reccommend. It doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but it is in terms of energy use – each degree of cooling translates to about ten per cent of the system’s energy use.”

Most Australian offices are two to three degrees colder than they should be, and it could be impacting productivity levels. Photo: Thinkstock Most Australian offices are two to three degrees colder than they should be, and it could be impacting productivity levels. Photo: Thinkstock

While there is no magical temperature that will satisfy every single person in the office, 24 to 25 degrees would be Professor de Dear’s recommendation for Australian offices.

“Overcooling I think definitely distracts people from the task at hand if they’re fussing around trying to keep warm,” he said.

“Just put yourself in the example of being in a freezing cinema. At the end of two hours you’re having trouble following the plot because it’s so damn cold.”

For each degree outside the optimum range, the effect on cognitive function could be “in the order of a couple of percentage points” according to Professor de Dear.

While that might not sound like a great deal, in a high wage country such as Australia those figures can equate to large economic losses.

So what’s the solution to our overcooling obsession?

One day we’ll each be able to control our own temperatures from our desk.

It’s not without precedent.

Professor de Dear cites the example of an Australian bank commissioning individualised heating controls for its traders in the 1990s so they would stay completely focused on split second decisions rather than the temperature.

This involved pumping unconditioned air to vents at each work space, and then tempering the air to suit individual requirements.

While it was complex and inefficient at the time, it could turn out to be the opposite.

“The traditional, conventional approach of pumping conditioned air, when you think about it, that’s a very inefficient way to do things,” he said.

“Workers only occupy a tiny fraction of air, but we’re conditioning all of it, you don’t need to have 22 degrees for the whole volume of air in an office.”

In the meantime, Professor de Dear recommends workplaces re-evaluated their workwear guidelines for the summer months.

“In Australia the corporate dress code has taken over and it’s completely climate un-responsive. It’s often suggested that the reason offices are overcooled is because we want men to wear business suits. It’s the same for Singapore and Hong Kong,” he said.

“Japan tried to encourage workers to dress casually to cut back on cooling in summer in reponse to the drop in electricity production post Fukushima. It didn’t cost lots of money, it was a cultural change,” he said.

So, until we all have our own micro-climatic work stations, it might be time to tell your hotheaded colleague to stop turning the air conditioning down. If they have a problem with it, tell them to put a pair of shorts on.

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