The cost, by degrees, of a cold office: Chilly temperatures hit GDP harder than snow or heat-waves

Cold temperatures can weigh on social relationships in the office, not just productivity (Source: Getty)

In the heights of summer and the depths of winter, control of the office thermostat is a high privilege indeed. A 2014 study by One Poll found that only 24 per cent think that their office is the right temperature for working throughout the year, indicating how divisive the issue can be in many workplaces.

But temperature can be more than just a minor gripe – it can have a significant bearing on performance. So what ambient temperature is optimal?


According to a 2006 report by Helsinki University of Technology, the ideal office environment is around 22 degrees. The researchers found that the temperature of indoor environments can impact performance in a number of ways, changing how comfortable workers feel and their perception of air quality. The prevalence of sick building syndrome also increased in environments of up to 21-22 degrees and above 23-24 degrees.

In 2002, meta-analysis of a number of previous studies by June Pilcher found that the types of tasks we find it difficult to execute differs depending on the temperature.

When the office is hotter than 26 degrees, we struggle most with “attentional and perceptual type tasks and mathematical processing tasks”. But when it dips below 18 degrees, we find reasoning, learning and memory tasks most difficult. Our abilities are impaired further if we have been exposed to particularly high or low temperatures for 60 minutes before we start the task.


Moreover, the temperature in the office may have a direct impact on social relationships. Utrecht University’s Hans IJzerman and Gun Semin found that workers in warmer conditions expressed warmer sentiments towards the researchers than those who were colder. “Environmentally induced conditions shape not only language use,” they said, “but also the perception and construal of social relationships.”

It will come as little surprise that the temperature outside the office can adversely affect productivity as well. More unexpected, however, is the fact that precipitation – snow, rain, and the absenteeism and traffic issues they cause – may be less of a problem than a cold temperature.

Last year, research by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) found a single degree drop in the minimum average temperature costs the UK economy £2.5bn. The cumulative effect of the cold was found to have a greater impact than flooding, heat-waves or snowfall. Indeed, for every single degree rise in the minimum average temperature, the UK economy nets an extra £66m.


While sunny weather may brighten workers’ dispositions, its effect on productivity may be a negative one. Although as little as 10mm of rainfall above average can cost the economy £86m per quarter in lost output, according to CEBR, employees who make it to work may be more efficient when they get there.

Far from dampening productivity, rain may boost it considerably. A 2014 study in the Journal of Psychology analysed the effects of rainfall on transaction completion times in a Japanese bank’s home-loan mortgage processing line. A one inch increase in rainfall was found to speed up transactions by 1.3 per cent. The potential savings to the bank, when this figure is extrapolated across all 5,000 employees, was estimated to be a sizeable $937,500 a year.

The researchers supposed that the “cognitive distractions” linked to good weather may explain the findings. “In a city the size of Tokyo (approximately 9m people), the identified effect could translate into hundreds of millions of dollars in annual lost productivity.”

Related articles