What You Can Do About Your Thermal Comfort At Work

Have you ever felt too cold indoors? How about too hot? Engaged in some polite thermostat wars with others, or secreted a space heater somewhere nearby?

You are not alone. Very much so, in fact. Unfortunately, as a UC Center for the Built Environment study showed, in only 11 percent of buildings are more than 80 percent of occupants actually satisfyingly comfortable. This is further complicated by a major IFMA study which showed that while the top occupant comfort complaint is that their space is too cold, the very next (nearly equal) complaint is that they’re too hot. Obviously, we’ve a ways to go, and it’s not as easy as deciding at what point to set the thermostat.

Of course, thus far this probably only reinforces what you already knew. Whether it’s summer with the AC blasting enough for you to bring in your winter coat, winter in your seat next to a single pane window or under the vent blasting away, or one of the dreaded “shoulder” seasons of spring and summer where nowhere indoor nor outdoors is safe or predictable for comfort—whatever the season, discomfort is likely rampant. Right now, you may even be chuckling inside at articles such as Now That the Sun Has Become a Giant Red Star Ready to Consume Our Planet, My Office Isn’t That Cold Anymore!, or dreading the coming summer season as surely, once again, Women’s Winter is Coming.

But there is hope. Whether you’re unable to make systemic changes to your HVAC system, or in the driver’s seat, able to call in the troops for a major renovation, you can do more than you might expect.

What contributes to thermal comfort, anyway?

First, let’s talk about what contributes to thermal comfort. While everyone’s instinct is to focus on the thermostat, it’s about more than temperature.

Thermal comfort depends on some internal factors. Your activity level is one — if you’re up and moving, or spending most of your time sitting, you will find very different environments desirable. Your metabolism can also be a driver, as can illness or life changes such as menopause. Your own personal layer of insulation can make you significantly cooler or warmer than those around you as well.

When it comes to external factors, four main influences prevail. One is obvious: temperature. Yes, 32° Fahrenheit is certainly different than 78°. But humidity also plays a part—forty to sixty percent relative humidity is the most comfortable — too high a humidity level can create conditions a little too friendly to mold, allergens, and dust mites, while bacteria and viruses like it dry. Air movement, too, can evaporate sweat from our skin to cool us down. Mean radiant temperature is the last, meaning that the temperature of the surfaces around you is a consideration. It’s part of why sitting near the fireplace, of course, is so appealing on a cold winter day.

If you’re not in charge, or not ready for a major renovation.

If you aren’t a decision-maker, or someone who can change the type of thermal system, insulation, or set-point of your space, are you doomed to a life of thermal discomfort?

Gladly, there are steps you can take to improve your comfort without permanently working from home, changing apartments or jobs, or leading a coup to gain mastery over the thermostat. Let’s put our newfound (or refreshed) knowledge of all the influences at play in our comfort. What can you do to calm those chattering teeth or rejuvenate yourself from your wilted swoon?