By the mid-20th century, American workers were facing increasingly extreme heat. This year, an endless string of Midwest and Northeast cities–Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Rochester, Boston, Albany, Trenton, Milwaukee–have experienced the worst of the heat wave that’s been throwing billions of dollars’ worth of business and construction deals into chaos.
The stress associated with extreme heat affects performance and, in turn, productivity, as told by Professor Allison Henderson, a business professor at Wake Forest University and author of Chicken Soup for the Business Soul.
Henderson also found that workplace productivity spikes slightly when you’re working outside, mainly because it takes a few minutes longer for your body to acclimate to the air before you start concentrating on the task at hand. The work you do outside affects your productivity as much as the time you spend in your office, which means that, in some cases, employees who need to shut themselves in a bayafe might actually be costing themselves more money than if they didn’t have to work at all.
Speaking of costs: Henderson estimates that in a typical day, 15 percent of the cost of a project goes to heat–essentially, the cost of cooling a building, so if you’re out in the open, you’re obviously paying more for cooling. Henderson explains that such heat makes it harder for workers to focus on the task at hand, increases stress levels, lowers levels of key chemicals in your body, and reduces the efficiency of some chemicals and processes. These chemicals give you a feeling of control, like feeling as if you’re exercising control over a product, and they also promote rest, improvement and overall health. “When you take those chemicals away from people, their body-chemistry changes,” she says.
One factor that Henderson says is creating a new strain on employees is the internet age. With the proliferation of email, Skype, social media and online chat, it’s easier than ever for people to work remotely. “We’re connected to a lot of people we would have not been connected to, and we have people’s texts and emails at our fingertips,” she says. “We can work virtually 24 hours a day.”
While Henderson doesn’t recommend that companies totally ditch the idea of bringing in remote workers, she believes there needs to be stricter control on the culture that’s created: “If you’re one of the people that you send stuff to and then hear it come back within two or three days, it might be a more casual manner of communication. The use of communication apps puts a lot of emphasis on the instant thing, instead of the the retention thing, and it means you can’t actually concentrate long enough to get your job done.”
An even better solution, she says, is for companies to adopt heat-safe design principles, but employers have to make this sort of technology affordable. “It depends on companies trying to build heat-safe environments,” Henderson says. “It doesn’t make sense for them to do it unless it’s financially feasible. So what they’ve been doing is trying to redesign buildings and the systems in their buildings to be heat-safe.”
Already in Michigan, General Motors and the state are installing a heat map at Michigan State University’s campus that analyzes real-time temperatures and humidity levels of the building. If temperatures rise too high, the heat map will automatically send a message to desktops and mobile devices. Meanwhile, auto manufacturers are incorporating components like winter tires and headlights with cooling capabilities in order to keep their people cool in a variety of weather conditions. Just last month, Mercury Aircraft and the Town of Perry, New York, unveiled their new Polaris Celerio model–a five-seat commuter aircraft that is packed with a whole set of small engines, including one that has an advanced 12-cylinder design that uses liquid chilled to pump hot air out of the engines, saving Mercury 3.7 times the amount of cooling water it previously had to inject. Other manufacturers have also developed more efficient air-conditioning systems, which cut down on use and improve efficiency, but there’s still no company that builds a heat-safe system the size and cost of an airplane.