Two long-sleeved shirts, a sweater, a fleece jacket, two scarves and two pairs of socks.
That has been Karen Ericson’s go-to outfit in her office in Des Moines, Iowa, in recent weeks.
“I am still shivering,” the 39-year-old graphic designer said last week, estimating the temperature in the office was in the mid-60s while outside, the city hit 19 below zero at one point. “Living in the Midwest, I’m well trained to dress warmly and in layers, but this deep freeze has been difficult to endure, especially when I expect to be comfortable — or at least not shivering — inside.”
As much of the nation muddled through bitter weather in recent weeks, office dwellers found they still had to brave the cold even when indoors. Many relied on winter parkas, gloves, blankets and space heaters just to keep working.
“Today I’ve got two sweaters, a scarf, ear coverings, gloves and a blanket over my lap,” Rebecca Miller, a 27-year-old academic adviser at Tennessee State University in Nashville, said last week as temperatures barely ticked above 50 degrees in her office while outside it was 20 degrees or lower in the daytime. “But I’m still having a hard time working. I’m shaking cold, and it’s hard to focus. The gloves make it hard to type, and the bulky layers make it difficult to move around.”
Like thousands of other chilly Americans, she snapped selfies at her desk in attire usually reserved for the ski slopes and shared them on social media.
Office developments are built with centralized heating systems that make the buildings suitable for a range of uses over many years. The down side is that they provide little climate control to individual tenants — sometimes purposely, said Khee Poh Lam, architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Thermostats are often tucked into hard-to-reach spaces like false ceilings and air ducts so office tenants can’t mess with them, Lam said. Other buildings have dummy units out in the open that don’t actually do anything except give desperate workers the illusion of control.
Finding the right temperature to please everyone has been an elusive goal for office designers and builders, said Stefano Schiavon, architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-wrote a 2012 study that found roughly 40 percent of U.S. workers were satisfied with their office’s temperature. Design standards call for an acceptability rate closer to 80 percent, he said.
The challenge isn’t just confined to the winter, of course. Chilly offices have long been the bane of women who complain air conditioning is cranked up in the summer to appease their male, suit-wearing counterparts. And there are certainly many offices with overzealous furnaces that prompt workers to crack open windows even on the coldest days.
Optimal temperature for office work is 72 to 79 degrees — or nearly 10 degrees more than what many buildings typically set their thermostats, said Alan Hedge, a design professor at Cornell University in New York who has researched how temperature affects productivity.
Schiavon suggested that companies, even those based in the draftiest old offices, can invest in safe, relatively inexpensive technology to keep workers warm and productive, like heated chairs, electric blankets and heated floor mats.
“The bottom line is that central heating won’t work for everyone, even if designed right,” he said. “We’re very different people and need some sort of personalization of our environment.”
Ericson, the Iowa resident, said the key to getting through the work day has been reminding herself the cold is only temporary.
“Every day that passes,” she said, “is a day closer to spring.”