Everything I know about productivity and climate is a lie.
I thought I was positive about what the research on climate and productivity was going to show. I mean I was real damn smug about it, but thankfully, I was blissfully and irrevocably wrong.
Your productivity is greatly influenced by everything from humidity, to temperature, to air ventilation. As climate change takes hold, those conditions are becoming less stable and trending towards hotter and warmer temperatures for sustained periods of time. Not only is this bad for the planet we call home, it’s equally damaging to our productivity.
Your body and weather
During winter as a child I liked to pretend to be a dying climber on a mountain of ice, but I was morbid and had no friends. I quickly noticed how the cold sunk into my bones and chilled me to the core. During the summer I laid in the pool floating on a raft for untold hours, my mind blank, and body rife with blisters from a lack of sunscreen.
These were valuable lessons that taught me that the body is exceptionally susceptible to changes in temperature.
Your body is designed to work best in temperate-to-tropical climates. You fight to maintain 36.7 degrees Celsius (or about 98.06 degrees Fahrenheit) with good reason. It is the optimal temperature at which your body is able to keep fungal infection away. It also provides the added benefit of being just the right temperature so that you don’t have to eat constantly to keep up your metabolism.
For a refresher from sixth grade biology: your body’s thermostat resides in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus signals the proper response to help regulate your temperature and achieve homeostasis. When it is too cold, or too hot, your body has to divert resources away from other tasks in order to restore balance. But you don’t just have to be outdoors to be affected by changes in the weather.
Awww, but it’s no nice outside!
My hypothesis when I began writing this was that bad weather was far worse for productivity than nice weather. I assumed that grey skies made you feel depressed and that made you work less. This is absolutely wrong.
Bad weather actually increases your productivity.
When you can’t go outside, when enjoying the weather isn’t even an option, you focus more on work. The reason for this is because you are cognitively less distracted. Bad weather can even help you remember better and think more creatively about a problem. Sunny weather has the exact opposite results.
Research indicates that when the weather is nice, people just can’t focus on their work.
The sunlight ends up driving people to distraction. In fact, even when the weather is crap, if you so much as show someone a photo of a sunny day, they will begin to think about nice weather and their productivity will fail.
“On good weather days, making outside options salient doesn’t matter because we’re already distracted by the sun, but on bad weather days, people tend to make more errors and perform more slowly when you just make them think about outside options.” —Professor Francesca Gino
That doesn’t sound so bad right? Just thinking about nice weather, I mean there could be worse things in life…
I present you with thermal comfort: the condition of mind which expresses satisfaction with the thermal environment.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Your productivity is greatly influenced by the temperature of your workspace. It’s not as simple as just setting the air to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and calling it a day.
There are six factors which contribute to your thermal comfort:
If you have discomfort in any one of these areas it can mess up how well, or how long you work—this is called thermal stress. As your thermal stress levels increase, your tolerance for environmental hazards decreases.
Working in a slightly cooler environment doesn’t impede your mental abilities. You are still able to understand and follow directions without much incident. If, however, you adjust the heat of a room to just 77 degrees Fahrenheit your mental processes take a real hit.
Even the simplest of cognitive tasks are impacted by warmer temperatures.
Your body has to expel more energy to regulate its internal temperature as a response to hot weather. Your brain produces 20% of the heat generated within the human body and that heat needs to be eradicated. As temperatures increase, it becomes more difficult for your brain and body to get rid of that heat, thus impairing your mental abilities.
Numerous studies have shown that as indoor temperatures increase, standardized test scores drop. People simply can’t solve problems or function the way they normally would. Warmer temperatures even impair our decision making abilities to the point that we just avoid making any decisions at all. Your body does this because your initial reaction is to reduce or minimize your work load in order to conserve energy.
That’s why it is anticipated that as global temperatures increase, productivity will decrease.
Researchers Geoffrey Heal and Jisung Park discovered that a countries Gross Domestic Product can be affected by as much as 3-4% in both directions. For hotter countries, they witnessed a 3-4% drop in output (though there was a 3-4% increase in output from colder countries). Another study, looking at productivity output in Japan showed this:
For every degree rise in temperature above 25 Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) resulted in a 2 percent drop in productivity.
That loss of productivity also corresponds with a direct loss of income. Those are some pretty serious consequences for just a few degrees.
The more that temperatures stray from what your body finds normal, the more difficult it becomes to maintain your level of productivity. So here are some steps you can take in order to maximize your workplace comfort:
Set the thermostat to be at 72 degrees Fahrenheit: This is like the Goldilocks temperature for most people—not too hot, not too cold. If you want to be really anal about the entire thing, researchers in Helsinki found that workers were most productive at a temperature of 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are unable to control the temperature of where you work try wearing layers so you can adjust for temperature changes as needed.
Make sure you have a good air flow: Air quality is really important and having a good ventilation system is part of maintaining that quality. Poor ventilation can cause headaches, fatigue, and make it more difficult to concentrate. Try to open up a window when the weather allows for it and consider an air filter to help purify and circulate fresh air.
Set humidity levels between 20-60%: Humidity is an important contributor to productivity because it affects how the body perceives temperature. People can better tolerate warmer and colder temperatures if the humidity is low. Many homes have built-in humidifiers now, but if you live in an older home, you can invest in a room humidifier which are usually fairly affordable. The lower the outdoor temperature the lower the humidity should be.
Climate matters, weather matters, and how we perceive that weather influences our productivity in deeply profound ways. The body is an infinitely complex thing and it is at times infuriatingly susceptible to even the smallest of changes. Thankfully, we are able to make equally small adjustments in our environment to preserve and enhance our productivity.
Finding the optimal working condition will differ depending on your own personal preferences but you will be astounded by the difference just a few degrees can make.
As for my advice on what to do when the sun is shining and you are stuck inside? Try putting a tarp over the window.