Too hot to work? Self-reported productivity measures may lead to the wrong conclusion.

The physical climate of the workplace has long been often overlooked as an important factor influencing performance. Fortunately, and perhaps as a positive effect of COVID, we have started to understand that concentration, physical and mental health, and thus productivity are directly related to the physical environment we work in. New office developments are increasingly not just considering energy efficiency, but also indoor environment quality (IEQ; including noise, temperature, and lighting). Self-reported satisfaction with and hinderance of performance are often the pillar of large-scale IEQ interventions and investments. But how reliable are those measures?

Behavioral research has often warned that self-report has very limited accuracy. Individuals are notoriously unable to consciously report all relevant factors that contribute to our performance and productivity. In an experimental study at Maastricht University, we studied how useful self-report is in assessing the link between IEQ and human performance. While exposed to either 22 ºC (control group) or 28 ºC (treated group), participants completed a performance task in which they solved well-known heuristics problems and a risk task which measured their risk attitude. Such tasks are great proxies for the productivity of high-skilled workers in real life (for whom productivity is hard to measure). We then asked all participants to report on the effect of temperature on their performance and their risk attitude.


Figure 1 shows our results by gender: most importantly, we see that men think that heat significantly decreases their performance, whereas women report no significant perceived difference. Interestingly, the heat does not have an actual effect on performance on the heuristics tasks for either men or women. It could be that the salience of discomfort clouds the judgement of effect of heat for men, as women prefer warmer temperatures in general.

For risk, the inconsistency continues: men believe they become less risky (which is not reflected in their behavior) and women again do not report any difference (but actually significantly increase their risk behavior). These results show that self-reported performance is not in line with actual behavior, for both gender and domain.

What do these results imply? It’s important to note that satisfaction on its own can still be a relevant outcome for employers and building developers. Our results simply suggest that focusing on improving self-reported dissatisfaction does not automatically improve productivity. However, the reverse could still hold: improving factors that actually influence health and productivity could improve both physical and mental health, and thus improve self-reported satisfaction in the long run. People might not be able to accurately report what is good for them, but this does not mean we should not care to find out what is!