A few thoughts on air conditioning

While I normally work out of my home office, I give a lot of speeches at conferences and corporate events. This means that I spend big chunks of time in hotels and convention centers. During summer months, many of these facilities maintain the approximate temperature of a meat freezer.

I have long been curious about this phenomenon, because I find it so miserable. I bring cardigans everywhere, but still. I was once shivering so badly before a speech that I had to really work to keep from dropping the hand-held microphone my hosts had arranged for me. Indeed, I wrote an op-ed for USA Today a few years ago about the topic. I have been interested to see a few recent articles about over-air-conditioning as well.

It turns out that temperature is a matter of personal preference, and some of this preference is gender-based. It’s not so much that women are naturally much colder than men beyond some body-size differences, it’s that air conditioning is set for men wearing long pants, long sleeves, and a jacket (not to mention socks). Women’s summer attire often does not include these things; women’s dress shoes are almost never designed to be worn with socks, for instance (and hosiery doesn’t provide the same warmth). A temperature cool enough to prevent a 200-lb man wearing an undershirt, a dress shirt, and a jacket from perspiring will likely leave a 130-lb woman in a dress, heels, and cardigan feeling frosty. Since men are viewed as the default, the temperature is often set for them. Hence the phenomenon of people bringing space heaters and blankets to their cubicles.

I suppose setting the temperature for the people who like it cooler has some good arguments for it. It’s not actually true that people are more productive in much cooler temperatures (yeah, they’re not productive in 95 degree temperatures, but that’s not the range we’re looking at). But the usual argument is that people who are cold can add layers, whereas the people who are hot can’t take them off.

Except…why not? I certainly think that the expectation of men’s business attire could change for the summer. A snazzy polo, khakis, and boat shoes would be much cooler than a jacket. I imagine that most corporate cultures aren’t quite prepared for men to wear shorts and sandals in the office but the boat shoes and short sleeves could buy a few extra degrees.

Which would save all kinds of money, and be more environmentally friendly. Personally, I think the best balance would be to set the temperature higher, to save on energy costs, and then relax the dress code and have a very liberal work-from-home policy for any job where that was a possibility. Anyone who wants an icy 68 degrees is welcome to work from home and crank up his own AC as much as he wants.

How’s your office temperature these days? How about your home? We set the AC in the house to 77 or 78, though I sometimes put it down to 76 or 75 overnight (only for the upstairs; any zone where people aren’t currently can go up to 88 or so).

Photo: Flowers, not wilting in the heat


18 thoughts on “A few thoughts on air conditioning

  1. I work in a corporate office and environment and am pretty much always freezing. I love wearing dressing but then I freeze in the office. I used to keep a blanket at my desk and should probably do that again.

    We have a/c at home but we only run it when it’s in the upper 80s and doesn’t cool down at night. My husband and I don’t really love a/c as it makes us feel kind of stuffed up for some reason? Especially my husband. We use the a/c more now that we have a baby. He runs super hot and we have black-out curtains + a shade on the windows in his room so it doesn’t work to open his windows at night. So we usually turn on the a/c for his sake!

    My company recently announced a ‘dress for your day’ policy. So far everyone is dressing like they normally did but it’s nice to have the option to wear jeans if I want to. I think they put the dress code policy into place to make up for ending a work from home program. I guess they figure that it’s more appealing to go into an office for those who worked from home if they don’t have to dress up? I personally think ending that program moved the company back in time. But I guess their justification was having people come into work encourages collaboration. *rolls eyes* I don’t buy that at all as some jobs don’t warrant collaboration and you don’t need to be face-to-face to collaborate but oh well. My role has never been possible to do from home as i work on a trading floor but it sucks that we have lost some good employees because of this policy (in areas like LA and Boston where the commute can be God awful).

    1. @Lisa- I’m not a huge fan of AC either. One reason I loved our beach rental is that at night we could just open the bedroom windows and the ocean breeze would blow in. There was a window unit for those nights when it’s 90, but that doesn’t happen too often.

      1. Summer is absolutely my favorite season other than the ‘meat freezer’ temperatures indoors including restaurants, grocery stores, etc. I’ve started wearing light weight pants with tank tops and bringing along a jacket or cardigan even for casual days & errands. At home I’ve had to compromise with my warm natured spouse at 75 degrees.

    2. Lisa – I’m pretty sure based on your third paragraph we work for the same company. If you ever want to find me through our company intranet and plot how to get Laura in to speak to our organization and enlighten our co-workers on the value of thinking in terms of 168 hours, not 24, I’m all in!! I’ve shared her way of thinking with some folks, but not nearly enough!

  2. I am very fortunate to have an old part-stone part-brick house. Last week, when the temperatures climbed over 100 F, we would hide inside periodically and within an hour run out again, having practically frozen inside the house, to thaw.
    The downside is that the place is not habitable during winter, as it takes hours to even heat one room to a temperature over 50 F. So we move to the city for the colder months.

  3. A friend of mine who’s a software engineer runs super hot, even for a man, but his office is so cold he keeps a flannel-lined wool sweater there to wear year-round. He thinks/has heard that nowadays it’s as much about keeping the expensive machinery (mainframe computers, etc.) comfortable as it is about male business attire, and also that it’s difficult to regulate indoor temperatures as precisely by zones in a giant office building as it is from room to room in one’s own house. I think another part of the problem is that a temperature that feels warm enough, or even hot, while moving around outdoors with your blood circulating briskly feels frigid when sitting still indoors, as people in office buildings for the most part do all day, generating no body heat from physical exertion.

  4. I work for a tech company and they also turn up the AC super high (about 67 degrees). My hands are naturally cold so I’m more sensitive to cold temperatures, and having a blanket doesn’t help much. Even though it’s summer I still wear long sleeves and I even see the guys wearing sweaters. It’s definitely hard to ask for higher temperature when you’re working in a male-dominating workplace. Think I might opt to work from home during the times when it’s icy cold.

  5. The ONLY reason I’m wearing my white coat in the hospital is not because of ‘professionalism’ or ‘student doctor’ reasons, but because the hospital is SO COLD. This is despite the fact that I hate how that coat looks on me, and how it’s basically a disease vector). When I’m in the ORs, I’m freezing for the 30 seconds in between taking my OR jacket off, scrubbing and getting the gown on.

    I am also that person who wore a down parka in my lab until Mid May…so maybe it is just me

  6. I remember hearing about a Japanese government push to relax corporate dress codes (namely the jacket requirement) in the summer. All those A/C units generate heat, and added up they can raise the outside temperature of a city like Tokyo by a degree or two.

    However, I’m the person who keeps a space heater under my desk at work. It’s not eco-friendly, but I would rather be cold and use this than have my coworkers sweating at their desks all day.

  7. Coincidentally I just read a similar article in the NYT…something in the air. 🙂

    I lived in a house with no AC for 8 years. I couldn’t do it now. I have a very low tolerance for both excessive heat and cold, and perimenopause hasn’t helped in this regard. There were days this spring that I had both the heat and the air on in the same day (our house does not have screens on windows…a work-in-progress). Right now it’s set at 75 during the day and 73 at night (the upstairs of our house is significantly warmer than the first floor).

  8. In Europe, AC is much less common. My former office was always extremely hot (I mean 96 degrees several days in a row) in the summers and we just dealt with it. It was awful but I also am surprised how people aren’t more concerned about the environmental effects of creating a fake temperature much below the reality.

  9. I have NEVER, EVER understood the ridiculousness of our culture that tells men to wear heavy wool or polyester clothing and women to wear light filmy garments! It makes zero sense. Why do we do these stupid things? Most men would love to strangle the inventor of the necktie. Every corporate event I attend, I’m so frozen even while wearing pants, long sleeves and cardigans. On airplanes I end up shivering. It’s madness. It’s impossible to concentrate when all your energy is going towards staying warm!

  10. Thermal comfort is a topic I’m not only personally passionate about but that I also deal with professionally and have done a lot of research on. The main problem is the misunderstanding of what thermal comfort is for humans. Thermal pleasure is invoked by change, defined as alliesthesia, and keeping air temperature constant will at some point be uncomfortable for everyone. We also focus too much on air temperature when air speed, radiant temperature and humidity all play a significant role to our comfort. Finally, most humans are more comfortable in spaces with natural ventilation (and air flow) no matter what the temperature is. Which is why freezing AC in the summer is universally hated.
    The building industry is slowly moving in the right direction and solutions are available, but part of the struggle is occupants focus on thermostat vs. more holistic solutions, so we can all do better here (i.e. turn up temperature and put in some ceiling fans).
    I work in a casual Bay Area office and generally run a bit warm in all seasons, despite being female and wearing dresses most of the time. At home we air out the house in the early morning hours and then keep AC set to 75 during day and 70 during night, with the fan on during entire day.

  11. So happy to see I am not the only one. I live in the south and our summers are hot and humid. I am thankful for A/C but have never understood why we need to go from 98 degrees outside into what feels like a 58-degree restaurant, store, home, etc. It is far colder in most buildings in the summer than in the winter. In warmer months I go for restaurants that have an outdoor patio; a little shade, an overhead fan, and iced tea are all it takes to stay cool, at least until the August dog-days hit. Happy summer everyone!

    1. My father, who grew up in New England but is now retired in Florida, says “There is no colder place on Earth than a Miami restaurant”.

  12. That’s an interesting idea to relax clothing policies in office settings for the summer months so that AC doesn’t have to run so frequently. I personally work from home so this isn’t an issue, but I appreciate the point of accommodating all people, not just men in suits. Lately, we’ve been having issues with our AC, so sometimes I even end up at the library! We’ll have to get a professional to fix it as soon as possible.

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