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2/23/2003

No way to keep whole office comfortable

By Amy Joyce
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — How many consultants does it take to figure out what office temperature is right for everyone?

There aren’t enough.

There’s always a co-worker who is too hot or too cold, or who lugs in her own space heater to combat the guy who keeps the window open to combat the thermostat that stays at what some administrator deems a “comfortable” temperature.

These winter months may be the ones that incite the most intra-office conflict — all because of that silly thing called a thermostat.

We’re all made differently; we dress differently; we freeze and sweat differently. Some people say they fall asleep if it’s too warm. Others say they can’t type if it’s too cold. And those by the windows are often in an entirely different climate than those scattered throughout the office.

Daniel Int-Hout, chief engineer at Krueger, a maker of air devices, has spent most of his career studying the effects of heating and air conditioning on office environments. Much of it, he said, simply comes down to clothing. Ever wonder why it always seems the women are cold and the men are too warm?

“When dress codes call for men to wear ties and women to wear a skirt and blouse, you’re already in a world of hurt,” he said.

Hot air rises, so women who wear thin stockings are going to have cold feet. Men have to wear socks (unless they’re stuck in the 1980s). “There just is no temperature that will satisfy both,” he said.

Casual Fridays have changed a lot, he added. Women can wear socks. Men don’t wear ties. It should all be equal now, right?

You and I both know that’s not quite right.

Just look around. Check out how many people — even some men — have, hanging off the back of their chair, the Office Sweater. That gnarled (and usually gnarly), nubbly, stretched-out piece of Mr. Rogers-esque clothing one would never wear anywhere that mattered, except the office. It’s the one sweater — comfortable, warm, cozy — that can hang on the back of the chair and go unwashed for a year or more. It’s your security for those days when you can’t win the argument to turn up the heat. It’s your answer to the company that keeps its thermostat in that clear, locked box, far from the prying hands of uncomfortable employees.

It is, to some, still not enough.

One of Nancy Sherman Soleimani’s employees is always cold. Soleimani, of the suburban Work Place business management firm, said it doesn’t matter if the archaic heating units in her office are set to 60 or 90 — which, she said, are pretty much the only choices they have. Either way, one woman in the office is always “very, very cold.”

“She will dress in layers. If she says she’s cold, we pile things on top of her,” including Soleimani’s own green, stretched-out Office Sweater. “She wears long johns — pants under her long skirt.”

And the one guy in the office? His room is ice cold, Soleimani said. The heater is shut off. He has books piled on top of the radiators. It’s just the way he likes it.

Many office dwellers may not realize it, but that thermostat they keep fiddling with may have no more power than a non-mechanical pencil. Some call it the “dummy thermostat.” Int-Hout calls it the “placebo-stat.” It is one solution many companies have secretly (or not so) depended on for years.

“I’ve had requests from people to buy thermostats, not to hook them up,” he said. The reason? To fool those silly office workers into thinking they have a say in the office weather. But, he said, “people can’t be fooled; it only works for a little while.”

Mark Rittenberg, owner of AMR Commercial, a suburban real estate company that sells and leases office space, has seen his share of mental temperature controls. “We have a lot of buildings with dummy thermostats. I don’t know that people always put them in there to trick people, but as offices get rented and re-rented, thermostats get left that don’t do anything,” he said. “People are clueless that they have no control of it.

“When we have a complaint that it’s too hot in here, they send the engineer in,” he said of his own office. “I don’t think it really does anything, but once you complain about it, you feel too bad to ask again.”

Mostly, Rittenberg sits back to watch the two people in the office who especially help spur the thermostat wars. The office manager, with her own space heater, and the president — a guy — who keeps a space heater going at all times, too.

“Anyone who gets warm or cold, they pretty much just have to deal with it,” Rittenberg said. “The office manager and president are just like total wimps. ... In the summer, they’re wearing coats and sweaters in the office. In the winter, they’ve got space heaters.”

Because the office manager works toward the front of the smallish office, her space heater makes everything hot, he said. “We have to go and sneak and unplug it when she’s not around,” he said. (And no, she doesn’t think it’s funny.)

Offices with the locked-up thermostats, where only the chosen few have control over the controls, are the places where employees will rebel and be less productive, Int-Hout said. He’s not promoting the use of placebo-stats. He just thinks employees should have a bit more control over the temperature.