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Article 11 min read

Cold at work? Why it's time to turn up the heat on conversations around workplace norms

By Karam Hansen

Last updated September 21, 2021

For many adults, “9 to 5” is more than just a Dolly Parton smash hit—it’s their daily reality. Common logic might lead us to assume that the workplace, where we spend the majority of our waking hours, would be made comfortable, optimized for productivity. Yet for whom? As many women around the world can attest, it’s hard to focus when you’re busy shivering over a cup of hot tea.

In 2015, a study by two Dutch biologists pointed out the disproportionate rate at which women feel cold at work. The media was all over it. From Vice to NPR and everything in-between, reporters clamored to discuss why thermostats are sexist.

Four years after that study, you can probably still find your female coworkers wrapped in blankets at their desks. Maybe that’s no surprise, since the problem dates back to the heyday of electric typewriters, but it prompted me to take a look at how this often overlooked issue reflects a wider lack of conversations around workplace culture in 2019.

Recapping the sexist thermostat

What Professors Lichtenbelt and Kingma discovered back in 2015 was a flaw in the formula used to determine the ideal indoor temperature for office spaces since the 1960’s.

Of course, the 1960’s were a very different time. Fans of AMC’s Mad Men will no doubt recall scenes of suit-clad men chain-smoking indoors and calling their receptionist “doll.” It’s not hard to imagine the metrics they might have used to develop a universal standard for office temperatures at that time.

If you were to guess that the ‘standard metabolic rate’ used was that of a 40-year-old man weighing 154 lbs, you would be correct.

Likewise, 1 clo—the measurement of how much insulation a person needs to stay comfortable in a resting position—is equivalent to that provided by the traditional male work uniform of trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, suit jacket, and an undershirt.

By comparison, a knee-length skirt, long-sleeved shirt, full slip, and panty hose provides just about 0.64 clo of insulation. Combine this with an average resting metabolism rate that’s 3 percent lower in women than men—along with social norms around which areas of skin each gender can leave exposed (shoulders, ankles, cleavage, etc.)—and one can see where the shivers start to add up.

Cold offices are likely costing businesses more than they realize. A 2004 study out of Cornell University found that typing efficiency increases, while typing errors decrease, when temperatures are raised from the usual 70-74°F range to a slightly toastier 72-79°F. This increased productivity could save employers $2 an hour, per worker, according to Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell. That’s without counting the time lost to workers looking around for a blanket, putting on layers, or making warm drinks trying to beat the cold.

The environmental impact of air conditioning is also well-documented. The same Dutch study that identified the flaw in the formula used to determine temperatures also notes that 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from a buildings’ energy consumption—and 80 percent of variation in that consumption is directly tied to occupant behaviour.

This was proven viable by the “Cool Biz” campaign that the Japanese government instituted in 2005. Looking to reduce air conditioning usage in the summer months, federal Japanese employees were granted a more liberal dress code from June to September that allowed short-sleeved shirts without a jacket or tie. In just two years, the campaign was estimated to have reduced carbon emissions by 2 million tons.

Now, to be fair, there are a lot of factors that go into office temperature decisions. Many offices have central thermostats controlled by a building manager or a facilities team. Likewise, variations in body type and dress usually determine whether people run hot or cold at the office.

However, if a certain group is noticeably uncomfortable or unable to focus because of something in the environment that can be controlled, then it should be addressed. What this exploration of office temperatures really highlighted to me was that many offices may be adhering to a workplace norm that is clearly outdated, without even realizing it.

In 1960, women accounted for only about 35 percent of the American workforce. Today that number hovers at just over 47 percent. Over time, office fashion has become increasingly casual and many employers have ditched formal dress codes with the hope that comfort will increase productivity. Yet despite the reduced insulation and change in demographics, few have bothered to adjust the thermostat.

[Read also: How men can serve as allies for women in the workplace]

Evolving fashionably late

The issue runs deeper than office temperatures. Who establishes our workplace traditions, and why do they rarely evolve at the same speed as our society?

Although the cookie-cutter image of a pressed suit, white shirt, and dark tie is no longer the dominant style in many offices, suits will always be a staple of the business-professional look. There’s something about those dark colors and clean lines that immediately communicates ‘professionalism’.

But who gets to define what is professional? For the better part of Western history, it has been the cisgender straight white male.

So although workplaces are becoming increasingly diverse, the majority of office dress codes tend to support the white male aesthetic. Even if your office lets you come in wearing nothing but a muumuu and sandals, the wider societal subconscious could never accept you as someone who is there to be ‘professional’.

Despite people’s best intentions, what you wear to work reflects your social status, socio-economic, and cultural background. This fact presents a challenge for women and minorities in the aforementioned shift towards more casual office wear. Although jeans and a T-shirt may be completely acceptable at my place of work, I myself—an intern of color—choose to dress in a buttoned shirt and slacks daily. While I doubt anyone would find me less credible if I came in wearing Nikes instead of these less-than-comfortable black shoes, it never seemed like a gamble worth taking.

For women with high career aspirations, the office wear hierarchy is also difficult to navigate.

In 2016, Peter Glick, a psychology professor at the University of Lawrence in Wisconsin, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that disparity in gender leadership positions requires many women to dress in a fashion that would please male superiors. That could mean choosing an outfit that asserts confidence without seeming “standoffish” or wearing something that makes them feel attractive at the risk of objectification.

Either way, according to Mr. Glick, office fashion is often an unspoken “tax” on female employees because the variance in choices affects how they are perceived, regardless if they are dressing for a role or to present their personality.

This was part of the driving force for the New York City Commission on Human Rights to release guidelines in 2015 on avoiding discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. This guide, for example, prohibits requiring only men to wear shirts and slacks if women are allowed or required to wear dresses. In other words, if a woman can wear a dress, so can a man. Fair is fair.

The guidelines state that “different standards do not serve any legitimate non-discriminatory purpose and reinforce a culture of sex stereotyping.”

While this may be an early step toward passing nationwide legislation aimed at reducing discrimination, the United States’ history has repeatedly shown that legislation is rarely enough to enforce equity. The real challenge lies in bringing equality into day-to-day interactions and ensuring conversations are taking place that help to confront people’s unconscious biases.

[Read also: Should D&I training be mandatory?]

Talking about it is a first step toward change

While fashion choices “tax” women, Mr. Glick noted that men traditionally have fewer clothing options, allowing them to come to work in something like a uniform. In fact, at many schools, uniforms are used as a method to equalize a population, removing unwanted distractions. Yet Maia Palma, a human resources coordinator in charge of Zendesk’s new hire orientation, wore a uniform for the majority of her pre-university education and believes that rigid dress codes aren’t effective in the workplace. It puts pressure on employees to act a certain way, she said, instead of allowing them to fully express their personalities.

Still, even though she believes that letting workers express themselves helps to build trust and foster better collaboration, Palma also recognizes the realities of the corporate world and the variety of expectations within it.

“It’s out of your control how people perceive you,” she said “In society in general, whoever is the dominant culture will dictate what they view as successful.” Unfortunately, this has proven true time and time again.

In 2016, two separate incidents in Canada sparked outrage as black women—one in retail and one a waitress—were asked to leave their shifts because their respective hairstyles weren’t deemed a fit for the brand aesthetic.

That same year, a British woman started a massive debate over office dress codes after she was told she could not perform her receptionist duties at an accounting firm without wearing heels of at least two-inch height. Even just this past year, in 2018, the internet erupted over a New Jersey teenager who was forced to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a varsity wrestling match.

All these incidents were influenced by power dynamics and the cultural associations we make, consciously or otherwise. This is part of the struggle that many women, people of color and other minority groups still face daily in their workplace interactions.

“The fabric you have on your body or the way you style your hair doesn’t in any way impact the work that you do,” Palma told me. She points out the added pressure that many feel to prove their doubters wrong. “You’ve got to be like: ‘I don’t fit your definition but I’m still doing a great job.’ It’s those little battles you have to fight.”

That’s why Palma really appreciates the approach to diversity and inclusion (D&I) that she has found at Zendesk. Beyond the surface-level things—like the lack of dress code—Palma believes the company’s leadership has shown great compassion and dedication to fostering change. This goes beyond recruiting people from different backgrounds, but also making sure D&I is at the forefront of many conversations in hopes of improving how comfortable minority groups feel in the office.

Zendesk’s diversity page aims to make employment statistics—in terms of age, gender, race—more transparent. That transparency isn’t just for the outside world but also for Zendesk itself to reflect on where it stands and how it can improve.

The Employee Resource Group (ERG) initiative is one of Palma’s favorite ways that the company has fostered discussions for change. The ERGs—such as Women at Zendesk, Zendesk Pride, and Mosaic (POC)—are open to all employees who wish to build community around a certain identity or be an ally to that community.

[Read also: Everyone is welcome here: making space for sanctuary in the workplace]

ERGs meet about once a month, have their own Slack channels and sponsor company-wide events such as guest speakers, happy hours or specific cultural celebrations. For Palma, what hammers home the impact of ERGs is that each of them have an executive sponsor to give the group a direct channel to company leadership.

“Having it come from the top down shows people that we really value diversity and inclusion at work and what it can bring to people,” she said. “Having representation is important. It’s an uphill battle, but having that and having it be a priority, is amazing.”

The efforts of one company aren’t enough to create major societal shifts, but major shifts also can’t happen without each business doing the best it can to foster open conversation and initiate change.

“As much as we try to focus on equity, we’re not going to be perfect because we’re just this little piece in the greater puzzle,” Palma said. Starting conversations at work, and questioning long-standing office norms, is a good place to begin. And maybe also turning the thermostat up a few degrees.

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