July 27, 2019

Managing productivity in a heatwave

Recent heatwaves across Europe have brought misery at home and at work, and can even be deadly. If you’re an employer, what can you do in the workplace – now and for the long term – to keep people comfortable and maintain productivity? Adapting your building, and your approach to work, can make all the difference.

Records have been smashed across Europe this July[i], with temperatures in Paris tipping 43°C/110°F. In the same month, the Washington Post announced that a ‘potentially deadly’ heat wave was gripping two-thirds of the USA, with temperature records set to tumble[ii]. And Australia’s 2018-19 summer was the hottest on record[iii], temperatures hitting 50°C/122°F in some places.

Heatwaves can make it difficult to sleep and render a day in the office wiltingly unpleasant, making people feel tired, irritable and frustrated – especially if desk density is on the high side. None of this bodes well for business productivity. Worse, the heat can even be lethal: in 2003, a 10-day temperature spike in Europe caused over 35,000 avoidable deaths, including 2,000 in the UK[iv].

Not every workplace has air-conditioning. According to a 2018 report by the International Energy Agency, Europe has just 6% of the worlds air-conditioners, whereas the USA has 23% and China has 35%[v]. So besides signposting people to the NHS guidance for coping with a heatwave, what can a responsible employer do to weather the heat (if you’ll pardon the pun)?

Human conditions

Protect the vulnerable – If you know of employees in high-risk groups – including those with respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s disease and kidney conditions, plus pregnant women and those fasting during Ramadan – have a chat with them about taking steps to protect them. This might mean special measures such as portable air conditioning or fans at their desk, easy access to hydration, and working from home to avoid travelling. Be aware of the symptoms of dehydration and heatstroke, and know what to do if you spot them.

Manage the commute – Even if your offices are comfortable, the journey to work may not be. In July, the temperature on a London Underground train reached 36.6°C/97.9°F, which is basically body temperature (37°C/98.6°F) and certainly higher than the EU’s 30°C/86°F maximum for transporting cattle, sheep and pigs. Now’s the time to encourage people to work from home or an alternative site, or stagger start times to help them avoid peak-time crushes.

Manage travel – If people are due to travel on business, can it be delayed? Eurostar passengers stuck on a broken-down train fainted in the 40°C/104°F heat on 24 July, and flights were cancelled or delayed, leading to crowded airports. Employees travelling under such conditions, feeling drained and frustrated, aren’t going to be doing their best work when they do eventually arrive.

Physical conditions

Service your air-con ahead of summer – Air-conditioning systems always seem to fail when you need them most, because they’re having to work harder and can overload, especially if they have dirty air filters or condenser coils, or perhaps refrigerant leaks. Ensure you never miss a maintenance check and have your systems serviced before a heatwave hits.

Reconsider the air-conditioning you have – The use of air-conditioners is simply fuelling the climate problem. Consider other, more sustainable ways to cool your workplace, especially if you have some choices because of a new build or refurb.

Use your spare space – If you have any space which could let people spread out and breathe (and perhaps feel less irritable towards one another), now’s the time to make the most of it. You may have adaptive spaces, unused conference rooms, co-working spaces or satellite offices with spare desks, for example.

Invest in comfort – It looks like heatwaves are set to continue, so it may be worth renting or buying portable fans, and water-coolers to ensure hydration. Or how about the personal ‘air-conditioner’ which Sony hopes to release in 2020? The Reon Pocket is a Bluetooth device about the size of a card wallet, which you slip into a special undershirt and connect to an app so you can enjoy instant cooling[vi].

Just add plants – Plants are living air filters, absorbing carbon dioxide (and a few other nasties) and pumping out oxygen, so the creative use of interior plants can boost both mental and physical wellbeing. They can be used as partitions or even living 3D art pieces. Outside, if you don’t have garden space, a green façade can clean the air and cool the building, and even a rooftop garden can let people escape to some greenery and natural shading.

Smart buildings – Ensure optimum temperatures and fresh air supplies by handing their management over to smart control systems. External shutters could even track the sun and angle themselves accordingly, preventing glare and keeping interior temperatures under control.

Smog-eating facades – If you have the option, consider what features could help you manage high temperatures and air pollution. ‘Smog-guzzling’ facades can absorb pollutants, or – as with a hospital in Mexico City – use natural sunlight to convert nitrogen oxides into water, carbon dioxide and calcium nitrate. That hospital’s façade cancels out the equivalent of 1,000 cars’ emissions every day[vii].

But for right now, how about buying everyone an ice-cream?