The rules of summer: office edition

How to manage when things get heated—in more ways than one—at the office

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything:

I work in a smallish office that has an air-conditioning unit we can control. Generally speaking, the women want it warmer, the guys want it colder. Someone is always turning it down so low that the rest of us freeze. Someone else turns it back up, then someone turns it down again. (I don’t know who, but I have my theories.) Anyway, it’s getting ridiculous. How do we stop the air-conditioning battle, which is detracting from, you know, my work?

As a person who worked in excessively air-conditioned office buildings for years (in the New York City summer, when you wear as little as possible—but not too little—on your commute so as not to drown in your own sweat), I have suffered right along with you. I got used to going outside at various points throughout the day to stand in the blazing sun and warm my blue-tinged hands; I also collected an array of “desk clothes,” including hoodies, blankets, socks, and fingerless gloves, to don when necessary, like a seasonal Bob Cratchit. Now, of course, I work from home, and I complain that I’m too hot. 

But on to your dilemma. It’s been fodder for many a piece through the years about the “air-conditioning wars” because, yes, what we have long suspected is true. According to a study published in Nature Climate Change in 2015, “Indoor climate regulations are based on an empirical thermal comfort model that was developed in the 1960s. Standard values for one of its primary variables—metabolic rate—are based on an average male”—specifically, a 40-year-old weighing 154 pounds—“and may overestimate female metabolic rate by up to 35 percent.” What does this mean? Your office is trying to cool Don Draper, who’s wearing a suit and tie even though it’s 98 degrees in July. He needs it chilly—those martini lunches heat you up fast.

But it’s almost 60 years later, women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, summers are hotter than ever, and, as this 2018 survey from Careerbuilder points out, people are hot (or cold) and bothered! Forty-six percent of workers surveyed said their office was unpleasant, temperature-wise; 51 percent said that a chilly office hurts productivity; 67 percent felt that a warm office does the same. Even more relevant to your question: “Fifteen percent of workers say they have argued with a coworker about office temperature (7 percent of men vs. 22 percent of women), and nearly one in five (19 percent) have secretly changed the office temperature during the summer—13 percent to make it cooler, 6 percent to make it warmer.”

Your theories notwithstanding (email me your suspect’s name, please), you are correct, all this air-conditioning Sturm und Drang is a waste of time, as is arguing whether it’s worse to be too warm or too cold. They are both bad! So what to do? Your options fall into two categories: 1. Self-mediation, i.e., developing an office wardrobe that you can put on when cold (for people who run hot, think layers); going outside throughout the day to warm up; possibly investing in a space heater—if you do this, ask your manager if you can expense it—that lives under your desk and keeps you cozy; and 2. Taking the problem up the chain, i.e., talking to your manager or office human resources or some higher power about the problem, and helpfully proposing a solution. I suggest doing the latter first, because you can always fall back on the former when things don’t change to your liking, and temperature compromise is always, unfortunately, going to be part of any shared space, particularly one in which people of different genders, metabolic rates, and fashion sense are working with one another. 

Now, as for approaching the manager, I’d explain exactly what you wrote to me: People are changing the temperature willy-nilly, it’s detracting from people’s productivity, causing them to focus on something other than the task at hand, inciting unnecessary workplace angst and drama. As for the solution: Is it possible to set a stated office temperature or range (at least a few degrees warmer than what’s freezing you out) and have people work around that? Make sure to mention this Cornell University study that found that “when the office temperature in a month-long study increased from 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, typing errors fell by 44 percent and typing output jumped 150 percent.” Further, raising the temperature could save your company money: “about $2 per worker, per hour,” according to the study.

There should be but one person in charge of setting or changing the temperature, and only that person should move the needle. (This is how it was in my house growing up; that person was Mom and the temperature was 72 degrees or die.) Whether it be your manager, HR, or the company’s owner, they should make an announcement about this new policy and let people know that the AC is now hands-off. And maybe they should also consider an air-conditioning unit that doesn’t allow folks around the office to change it? Left to our own devices, we’re going to fend for ourselves. From a Wall Street Journal article on this issue, “To placate chronic complainers, some facility managers install dummy thermostats. They’re equipped with buttons or dials to give occupants an illusion of control, but lack any connection to the air-conditioning system.” It’s like the placebo effect, but for office temps. 

The idea of summer Fridays is great, but I have a huge deliverable every Monday, and, in reality, I can never really leave early. It stinks to be sitting in the near-empty office when everyone else is gone. Can I get this time back somehow, or ask my manager for another half-day, or even for an intern who can help? Or do I just need to suck it up? How come it’s fair for everyone else to leave early, but never me?

Ah, the summer Friday—a beautiful idea in concept, though rarely in execution. The problem is it never means there’s less work. Your job duties are just compacted into a shorter time frame, and, at least in all the situations I’ve seen the summer Friday employed, it’s offered assuming you can get the work you need done finished in the time allotted. So maybe you stay late throughout the week to take off early on Friday, or maybe you come in on Sunday to finish your deliverable, or maybe you work from home over the weekend. It’s not so much a vacation day as it is a benefit, providing people can manage to shift their work around and take advantage of it, which is why some people think summer Fridays are not so great at all, but more of a way for a company to seem nice but not really give you anything more than what you’re doing for yourself. (Still, walking out of an office at 1 p.m. on a Friday is pretty dang nice.)

This is why, with your quandary, you have to look at it another way. Not: I’m not getting summer Fridays and everyone else is (which is only going to come off kind of whiny and like you can’t get your job done if you bring it to a manager). But instead: Is my workload reasonable, and if not, what can be done to remedy that? Ask yourself, are you working around the clock and there’s never enough time to finish, even though you’re handling your work smartly and efficiently? Or are you wasting a lot of time, somehow, whether you’re aware of it or not? (Instagram will eat up the hours.) Are you taking on more work or do you have more duties than the rest of the team (and if so, are you being paid commensurately for it)? Or is the workload fairly equal, but it takes you longer? Someone in a management position may never be able to take a summer Friday, but ideally they’re being compensated fairly, and, hey, there are certain things that come with the job. Whatever your role, if you truly feel you are taking on the brunt of everyone else’s work around the office, or are assigned duties far beyond what anyone could accomplish in the time frame you have, I would indeed address it with your manager, but don’t do it simply under the guise of summer Fridays. This is a bigger question about your workload, your compensation, and your title. 

Either way, you should definitely be taking vacations. Book one, stat.

My coworker wears flip-flops to the office. Is this ever acceptable?

Yes, if you work at a waterpark. If not, next time you see the coworker in this distinctly non-office-appropriate footwear, stare at the offending plastic shoes until they notice. When they ask you what’s up, pause and shake your head as if coming out of a stupor, and then say with great bewilderment, “I’ve just never seen anyone wearing those in a workplace environment before.” Or you could just ignore them, knowing that you are in the right, and flip-flops are in the office wrong. Whatever gets you through the long, hot summer.

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