I have vivid memories of walking to my college classes on a warm day, hoping that that day would be different. Maybe the school had made some drastic changes and it wouldn’t be the same as last time. However, every time I let this optimism creep into my mind, my hopes were dashed when I sat down and realized that I would be sweating for the rest of class due to the high temperature of the classroom.
During this time I would constantly be thinking about the sweat marks on my back, the droplets forming on my forehead, and repositioning myself so that heat could escape. In between these thoughts, I would try to pay attention to the professor, but my attempts were futile. As the room seemed to close in around me and get warmer, my attention and ability to work would further diminish. If it were an exam day, the extent of my stress from the situation was only compounded.
It made me wonder why a school that is so dedicated to academics would make such a simple error. If I felt this way, there must surely be others who are in the same boat. Researchers have actually studied how room temperature affects cognitive performance, and while university administration may have neglected it, we can still use it to make ourselves more productive with our own work.
There have been many studies done on productivity in the workplace, and temperature yields one of the largest contributions. In my schooling days, I was experiencing what is called high thermal discomfort, which raises stress and lowers the ability to pay attention. Although I anecdotally knew this to be true, let’s look at what scientists have found.
One study was done among pre-teens in Denmark to determine how classroom temperature affected their performance on standardized tests. They had several classrooms at different temperatures but kept all other variables (lighting, noise level, air flow etc.) constant. What they found is that at lower temperatures around 70o F, students performed the tasks significantly faster when compared to those at higher temperatures between 77-80o F .
Interestingly, despite all other variables being constant, the students in the warmer setting perceived distractions such as noise and bright lighting to be much more prominent than they were. This was hypothesized to be because they were more stressed from thermal discomfort than the cool temperature group.
Another finding was that in the cooler room, air quality was perceived to be higher than the warm room despite nothing being changed other than temperature. This only adds to the stress felt by the students.
While these findings definitely point us towards some conclusions as to how temperature effects productivity, let’s solidify it by examining what researchers have found about the effects on adults. In a few workplace environments, it was found that as one gets closer and closer to the ‘sweating’ threshold (the point where you break a sweat), performance on tasks decreases steadily . Studies also show that people who are in a warm work environment are prone to taking more breaks and are less productive overall.
This can be attributed to a few different reasons. First, researchers found that when the office workers felt warmer (room temperatures around 79o F), they perceive themselves and their environment to be less healthy and less clean. This even manifested into symptoms such as higher rates of headache, fatigue, and low mental clarity.
When we get too warm, our minds experience lower arousal which is not what we want for high vigilance and productivity. One subconscious way to increase arousal (and subsequently vigilance and productivity) is to lower room temperature which triggers our bodies to increase metabolism. Cooler temperatures also make us feel slightly less relaxed in our work environment which, in this case, also helps productivity.
Moving on to the data, one experiment placed adults in rooms at different temperatures and found that warm room temperature was responsible for 7% lower cognitive performance and 30% more errors on a standardized test. The important part is that the test didn’t use an outlandish difference in temperature. The low-temperature group was at 68o F while the highest temperatures were around 79o F.
Some workplace experiments found that in a call center, the cooler side of the building spent 5-7% less time on the phone while achieving the same results as the warm side. Nurses who were in warmer rooms (around 78o F) took 16% longer to do charting and paperwork. It’s clear that cool temperatures are ideal if your goal is to have better cognitive performance and higher productivity.
Although vigilance and productivity require higher arousal, other important tasks such as memory and creativity are performed better at lower arousal so it’s important not to go too cold. We also lose some finger dexterity at colder temperatures which slows the speed at which we can operate tasks such as typing as well.
The key to your optimal cognitive performance for vigilance, productivity, creativity, and memory is to find your personal ‘sweet-spot’ temperature. This will vary for everybody since we all have different bodies and metabolic rates. However, I think that most people will fall between 68-72o F based on the data.
You want to be cool enough to heighten arousal and fight off productivity killing relaxation, but not so cold that you get hyper-aroused and lose control of your fingers. So, experiment for yourself and most importantly, stay cool!