Amanda Wesson used to get so cold at her old job that she needed to go to the washroom several times a day just to thaw her popsicle fingers in warm water.
Every time she turned up the thermostat, her boss turned it back down.
"Our offices were controlled by the same thermostat, and he was always hot while I was always cold," she recalls. "We literally argued about it every single day."
The tension between Ms. Wesson and her former boss got so bad, they finally decided to have a meeting. The outcome? The thermostat stayed under her boss's control but Ms. Wesson was allowed to bring in a space heater to put under her desk.
And as an olive branch, Ms. Wesson's former superior showed up one day with a "Snuggie" - the fleece body blanket with sleeves of TV commercial fame. Ms. Wesson wore it to keep warm but "only because my office had a door I could close."
Workplace colleagues found the whole thing amusing, "but, at the end of the day, it was uncomfortable for me," recalls Ms. Wesson, who now works in a more comfortable office as a marketing communications manager for Destiny Solutions Inc., a software provider in Toronto.
It's a familiar situation in many workplaces. As temperatures outside dip and heating systems are cranked up, the battlefield is set for another season of temperature wars.
It's not just winter that brings it on; when temperatures boil outside in summer, tempers can also boil inside when air conditioning systems set teeth chattering.
And then workers are at it again over thermostat settings. Two-thirds - 67 per cent - of more than 6,000 respondents to a recent Globe and Mail online poll said that people bicker about the temperature in their workplace.
No wonder they're at odds: More than a quarter - 27 per cent - of respondents to another survey described their workplace as too hot, while 19 per cent said it was too cold. And one in 10 of the 4,285 U.S. workers polled said they'd fought with a co-worker over the office temperature, found the survey by online job site CareerBuilder.com.
"These conflicts are not surprising given that, in office buildings, one thermostat will typically serve a large area shared by a number of people," says Alan Hedge, a professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who leads the university's research into workplace temperatures.
While temperature wars may seem amusing or trivial - or both - to those on the sidelines, HR and workplace experts say that workplaces that fail to resolve these disputes do so at their peril.
"These fights over the thermostat may seem harmless in the beginning, but they can quickly escalate to something bigger, unless something is done to fix the problem," warns Fiorella Callochia, president of Toronto-based management consulting firm HR Impact.
Ms. Callochia says temperature wars can create ill feelings not only between the fighting parties but also among other employees.
Some workers may take sides and the person who feels too hot or cold could get branded a whiner. "So now you've got someone who's not only suffering discomfort because of the temperature but is also ostracized by the team," Ms. Callochia says.
In addition to straining employee relationships, the experts say temperature wars can affect productivity, causing disruptions as people get up several times in a day to adjust the thermostat, or try to make themselves more comfortable by walking to a warmer part of the building, getting a hot drink or washing their hands.
About one in five - 22 per cent - of respondents to the CareerBuilder survey said that an environment that was too hot made it difficult to concentrate. The same went for 11 per cent about a workplace they felt was too cold.
A number of studies suggest that employees uncomfortable with the office temperature may find it harder to perform everyday functions.
In a major 2004 study, for instance, Prof. Hedge found a correlation between typing mistakes and temperature. When the office thermostat was reduced to 20 degrees from 25 degrees Celsius, typing mistakes rose by 74 per cent and output fell by 46 per cent. When it was cranked to 25 from 20, typing errors dropped 44 per cent and output rose 150 per cent
Patrick Dean, a brand coach at Instinct Brand Equity, a brand-coaching firm in Toronto, offers first-hand proof of the cause-and-effect relationship between office temperatures and productivity.
The old downtown building where he works is chilly on most winter days, with some rooms feeling more like walk-in fridges than offices, he says. Consequently, Mr. Dean says he and his co-workers have to interrupt work frequently to adjust the thermostat.
"There's no question - productivity goes down when you have to keep adjusting the thermostat throughout the day," Mr. Dean says. "And when your fingers are cold and stiff, you can't type as fast."
Temperature issues could also cause some employees to call in sick more often, whether because they get ill or simply want to avoid an unpleasant work environment, pros say.
Some employees - from women dealing with menopause to recent immigrants from much warmer climates - may be more prone to feel too hot or cold, says Shelley Brown, a consultant with Montreal-based consulting firm Bromgold Workplace Diversity. "We have to understand that people's tolerance for differences in temperatures may be different."
Prof. Hedge says one factor contributing to temperature wars is the persistent belief among some employers and building managers that workers will be more productive in thermal settings just a tad below comfortable.
"There's this theory out there that if people are comfortable, they'll become too relaxed or even feel tired, whereas, if they're slightly uncomfortable, they'll focus more on their work," he explains. "What we found in our research is just the opposite."
Prof. Hedge says workers actually perform better when the thermostat is a couple of degrees higher than the generally recommended comfort zone of 21 to 23 degrees Celsius. Some people may feel too warm when they first come into the office, but their bodies will cool down once they start to work, he adds.
And contrary to popular belief, it's easier for people to cool down than warm up, Prof. Hedge says. "This is why in countries like Japan, companies set their thermostat higher and relax their clothing standards so you don't have to wear a suit and tie."
Even when the thermostat is set to a comfortable temperature, there's no guarantee everyone will feel cozy, says Darryll Fortune, a spokesperson for Glendale, Wis.-based Johnson Controls Inc., which specializes in building efficiency. "There are optimal temperatures that provide a comfortable environment for the large majority," he says. "But there will always be one or two people who will be too hot or too cold."
Indeed, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says the Canadian Standards Association's guidelines for acceptable temperature and humidity ranges in offices meet the needs of about 80 per cent of workers.
Ms. Wesson's days of temperature warfare are over, now that she's in another job in another building. She says her office, where she's been working since last September, is comfortable, even if a bit on the cool side on certain days.
"I invested in really, really thin long johns, and I wear them to the office every day. It works - I have no complaints."
HOW TO CALL A TRUCE
agree on degrees
Ask employees to agree on a temperature setting that will be acceptable - if not perfectly satisfactory - to everyone. For easier consensus, let workers know you'll check for a few days and tweak settings until you find a happy medium.
Err on the side of warm
While it may seem logical - and convenient - to ask workers who feel cold to throw on a sweater, it's actually easier for people to cool down than it is to warm up. So instead of telling workers to pile on the layers, turn up the heat a couple of degrees and suggest light clothing for those who find it too warm.
Make special arrangements
Some employees, such as the receptionist subject to a blast of cold air every time the front door is opened, may need special provisions, such as space heaters, cooling fans or heated chair pads. Set safety rules.
Consider workstations with individual temperature controls, let employees control heating, air conditioning and ventilation levels in their own cubicle space.
Make sure windows are correctly sealed; install window film to block heat in the summertime.
Ask before you adjust
The simple courtesy of consulting co-workers before you fiddle with the thermostat can go a long way toward averting a temperature war.
Don't belittle others
Because you're feeling fine, you may be tempted to tell a co-worker to just put on a sweater and shut up. Don't.
Ask to meet with co-workers to brainstorm solutions for your temperature war. Come up with 10 suggestions, then whittle down the list to ideas that might actually work.
Don't pull rank
The mailroom clerk shouldn't have to freeze because the folks in sales get too toasty in their bullpen. Park job titles and egos at the door and think of solutions that will be fair and acceptable to everyone, regardless of company hierarchy.
Use the door
If you have your own office, make your space more comfortable by closing doors to keep in heat or leaving them open to stay cool. In summer, turn off computers and task lighting, and unplug cellphone chargers not in use.
DRESS FOR COMFORT
Wear layers that can be easily peeled off or on.
Make sure all pieces work well together for a professional look. That means no chunky fisherman's sweater over your silk blouse and light wool skirt. If you need to strip down to your sleeveless blouse, put your jacket or sweater back on whenever you step out of your office.
Choose natural fabrics. Wool suits and sweaters will keep you warmer than rayon or acrylic. To stay cool in the summer, opt for cotton, linen, silk or light wool. Polyester? Only if you like to sweat.
Skip the skimpy outfits. Short skirts and low-cut blouses will make you feel chilly. And you shouldn't be wearing them to work anyway.
Don't wear outerwear inside. If you need extra layers, try a dressy scarf or a pashmina; for men, a vest or cardigan in a fine knit.
Source: Linda Allan, Toronto-based etiquette expert