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Want More Productive Workers? Adjust Your Thermostat

The surprising science of workplace temperature.

Some years back, the Campbell Soup Company stumbled upon a marketing insight worthy of Don Draper.

If you want to predict when people will buy soup, the reasoning goes, you have to look beyond the product. It’s not about the depth of the soup’s flavor, the color of its packaging, or even its price. In fact, it’s hardly about Campbell’s at all.

It’s about the weather.

Consumers buy more soup when conditions are cold, damp, or windy. The question facing Campbell’s was this: How do you leverage this information into sales?

So they did something brilliant. They linked the frequency of their radio buys to the weather of each station. To determine when ads would be purchased, they developed an algorithm called the “Misery Index,” which uses meteorological data to track weather patterns. To this day, if you’re hearing an ad for soup on the radio, there’s a good chance you’re either carrying an umbrella or wearing a coat.

The rationale behind Campbell’s Misery Index is simultaneously clever and obvious, a hallmark of game-changing ideas. But it also raises an interesting question.

If a drop in temperature changes what we buy, what does it do to the way we think?

Typing With Gloves

If you sit near a vent, share legroom with a space heater, or use your desk to store outerwear, the question warrants serious consideration. One of the painful ironies of office life is that we can never quite get the temperature right. We spend our summers shivering in meat lockers and our winters sweating in saunas.

Central air hasn’t made us comfortable, so much as made us uncomfortable in a different way.

The experience isn’t simply unpleasant. It comes with a real financial cost.

To find out just how much, Cornell University researchers conducted a study that involved tinkering with the thermostat of an insurance office. When temperatures were low (68 degrees, to be precise), employees committed 44% more errors and were less than half as productive as when temperatures were warm (a cozy 77 degrees).

Cold employees weren’t just uncomfortable, they were distracted. The drop in performance was costing employers 10% more per hour, per employee. Which makes sense. When our body’s temperature drops, we expend energy keeping ourselves warm, making less energy available for concentration, inspiration, and insight.

Feeling Cold? You Might Just Be Lonely

And it’s not just performance that dips. It’s our impression of the people around us. In a fascinating study reported in the prestigious journal Science, psychologists uncovered a link between physical and interpersonal warmth. When people feel cold physically, they’re also more likely to perceive others as less generous and caring.

In a word, they view them as cold.

When we’re warm, on the other hand, we let our guard down and view ourselves as more similar to those around us. A forthcoming paper from researchers at UCLA even shows that brief exposure to warmer temperatures leads people to report higher job satisfaction.

Why the link between physical and mental warmth?

Psychologists argue it has to do with the way we’re built. The same area of the brain that lights up when we sense temperature--the insular cortex--is also active when we feel trust and empathy toward another person. When we experience warmth, we experience trust. And vice versa.

Neurologically, it seems we have our wires crossed. Except it’s not a coincidence.

There’s a reason we associate warmth with trust, and it’s because doing so promotes our survival, especially early on. As infants, keeping close to our caretaker is vital to staying alive, which is one reason we’re programmed to seek out warmth. Throughout our lives, we associate warmth (a hug) with affection (this person loves me). It’s a connection that grows stronger with every intimate embrace.

Why Lonely People Take More Showers

Because our minds unconsciously link warmth with affection, we’re more sensitive to cold temperatures than we think.

Research shows that when we experience cold temperatures, we’re especially likely to feel isolated. In fact, countering the experience of isolation is one reason people spend more time in the shower when they’re feeling down.

The unconscious desire for physical warmth is thought to be the reason lonely people bathe longer, more frequently, and use higher temperatures.

The Warmth-Productivity Link

We know that cold temperatures worsen productivity. What new research is showing is that it can also corrode the quality of our relationships.

And this, ultimately, is why office temperature matters.

Great workplaces aren’t simply the product of good organizational policies. They emerge when employees connect with one another and form meaningful relationships that engender trust. What’s often overlooked is that connections don’t operate in a vacuum.

It seems obvious that the temperature of a restaurant or theater can alter our experience. So why do we continue to neglect it in the workplace?

Ron Friedman, Ph.D. is the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps leaders build thriving organizations, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.

Connect with him @ronfriedman.

To receive an email the next time he posts, click here.

Ron Friedman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist who studies the science of workplace excellence.

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