Physical Space & Success - Hearing and Speech Agency

Physical Space & Success

The physical spaces where we work and learn are typically designed for one set of physical needs. How does this affect our success? And what can we do about it?

A recent New York Times article has reignited the conversation about cold offices and classrooms. Even now, as outdoor temperatures in Baltimore climb into the 90s, many people who work in offices are wearing sweaters and long sleeves. In particular, the article notes that cold offices disproportionately affect women’s productivity. The controlled study found that as room temperatures increased, so did women’s test scores, while male participants’ scores remained consistent in both colder and warmer rooms. “When temperature increases, the gender gap disappears,” Agne Kajackaite, the study author, notes. Our office and classroom spaces seem to be designed for one “standard” set of physical needs -  what does that mean for those who fall outside of this “norm?”

On the other end of the temperature spectrum, warmer classroom temperatures negatively impact student learning. In these cases, learning environments aren’t designed for anyone’s physical needs. Rather, they are designed to generate as few facility costs as possible. In Baltimore City, the cold of winter and heat of early summer cause unbearable temperature fluctuations in classrooms where AC is an open window and heating systems are unreliable at best.

Temperature and environmental fluctuations can also cause challenges for students and adults with autism or sensory processing disorders. Heat and cold, flickering fluorescent lights, noisy spaces, and more can also disproportionately affect these individuals.

Environmental temperature clearly affects outcomes at school and at work. What can we do now to make physical environments accessible to all, not just those who thrive in the cold?

1. Provide choice.

If you are in control of temperature in your workplace, provide options for warmer and cooler spaces. Consider asking your team their opinions on the environment, including temperature, lighting, and other physical factors. If relevant, especially in an open-concept space, provide options for warmer/cooler and brighter/darker work areas.

2. Go where you’re comfortable.

If you find yourself shivering through a meeting or sweating in class, use break time to get comfortable again. Step outside into the sunshine or grab a cold glass of water to regulate your temperature. Spend time in natural light if fluorescent lights are bringing you down. You know yourself best, so prioritize spending time in comfortable environments. Walking meetings or outdoor learning activities can help you control your environment, even if you can’t change your indoor working/learning space.

3. Grab a sweater (or a fan, or a lamp).

Use whatever tools available to you to make your space more conducive to success. Cold? Bring a sweater, scarf, or blanket to keep the chill from cooling your progress. Hot? Plug in a fan and stay hydrated. Foiled by flickering lights? Pick up a cheap lamp at the dollar store or a secondhand shop to brighten your outcomes. While these solutions are temporary, they can improve your day-to-day environment.

4. Make noise.

If you aren’t able to adjust the environment at work, make noise! Let management know what changes you’d like to see and make the case for how they’d improve productivity. Some of the research linked in this post can be great evidence to support your ask.  

Whether or not we realize it, physical environments affect our productivity and success. Improving physical learning and working spaces can improve educational and work outcomes for all - not just those who fall within the “standard” for whom the spaces were originally designed.


HASAHarry and Jeanette Weinberg Building 5900 Metro Drive Baltimore, MD 21215 410.318.6780