Interactive: Why you're so cold (or so hot) at the office

It's all about your clo.

Scroll down for our interactive ‘Clo Calculator’

Photograph by Nikki Ormerod

(Photo: by Nikki Ormerod)

Theresa Wetzel once wore a particularly eccentric accessory to work—fingerless gloves. The 28-year-old manager for the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Canadian branch is not a diehard Madonna fan. She wore them at her desk because she was cold. Really, really cold.

“There were some days I wore my scarf the whole day,” she says of her time at the IAB’s old Toronto office at Yonge and Carleton streets. She would have worn full-fingered gloves, but “I realized it was too hard to type.”

If you work in an office, you know that complaints about the office climate are common: it’s always either too cold or too hot for someone. And while building management goes to great lengths to keep everyone comfortable, employees often take measures into their own hands. At Wetzel’s office, staff started bringing their own space heaters, “to the point that we’d blow fuses in the building,” she says.

In theory, offices are kept at room temperature—a comfy 21°C. In reality, that gets thrown off by everything: sun-drenched picture windows, drafty stairwells, even computer servers create problematic microclimates, confesses Samantha Gal, a harried central dispatcher who works for a major building manager in downtown Vancouver.

A deeper clue as to why white-collar workers have trouble getting comfortable is an odd measurement called the “clo” (short for “clothing”). Though few have heard of it outside the field of thermal research, it’s the standard measure of body insulation used by building managers and clothing manufacturers alike. It was invented in 1941. And its complex equation is based on the insulation necessary to maintain a comfortable skin temperature of 33.3°C in a room-temperature environment. When it was developed, wardrobes were more uniform—and traditional. So 1.0 clo represents a man, at rest, wearing a wool business suit. That means your office is regulated with Don Draper’s comfort in mind. A woman wearing a skirt, blouse and jacket, could measure just 0.6 clo. Likewise, men who ditch their blazers forfeit a third of their insulation. So it’s wise to keep a sweater at the office, even in summer.

At her women-dominated public-relations firm, Environics Communications, Taylor Ferri says the temperature is unpredictable. “One of my colleagues said, ‘It’s comfortable today,’” says Ferri. “I said, ‘I’m freezing.’ Yesterday, it was hot. Today, I’m cold.” In her office tower near Yonge and Bloor streets in Toronto, each floor seems to have a different temperature, and individual floors have a hot side and a cold side. Staffers on the shady side are constantly calling the manager to turn up the heat; those in the sun are calling to have it turned it down.

For her part, Wetzel isn’t cold since the IAB moved to a newer, better-insulated home a few blocks north. Now, she’s too hot. Her colleagues can’t wait until May, when the air conditioning will finally come on. Until then, she says, one of her deskmates is running a fan.

Interactive by Graham F. Scott; illustrations by Josiah Gordon