The Comfort Zone

Business Casual
Susan Percy

The last battleground in the ongoing war for gender equality is — and will continue to be — the office thermostat. In every office I have ever worked in, women turn it up and men turn it down. Sometimes several times a day. Sometimes brazenly, sometimes furtively. Mostly the battle plays out with good humor. There’s some whining about heatstroke or frostbite, but the conflict is one of those dependable little dramas that keep office life interesting.

It is, in an odd way, somewhat unifying. All parties are quick to discern which are the real thermostats and which are the dummy controls that are not hooked up to any heating or cooling system on this planet. Some building managers try to avoid the wear and tear on office controls by insisting that there is a computerized system that regulates the flow of warmed or cooled air. Sure there is — it’s right on the same shelf with my winning lottery ticket.

(Note to office building managers: Nobody’s really intimidated by the idea of a computerized anything these days — the shampoo I used this morning is computerized to come out of the bottle evenly, and it doesn’t work, either. Oh, yeah, and those little plastic covers you put over the controls? Well, anybody who can’t figure out how to remove one of those is not smart enough to figure out how to get to an office in the first place.)

There are winners and losers in the daily thermostat battles, depending on seniority, desk location and plain old perseverance. Most of us take gracefully our victories and our defeats, and most of us are smart enough to keep a space heater or a small electric fan handy. (Note to users of personal heating or cooling devices: It’s a good idea to make sure you know where you can safely plug them in. Shorting out the electrical system is not generally an effective long-term solution to personal comfort.)

But probably my favorite thing about the thermostat battle is that it flies in the face of office politics. There are no bizarre alliances to unravel. The “I’m freezing”/”I’m burning up” camps always split along gender lines. The battle is unique among office irritants and perennial sticking points in that regard.

Slovenliness, for instance, has little to do with gender. The individual whose lunch is growing mold in the office refrigerator might be male or female; the dirty-cup-in-the-sink gene does not play favorites.

Music preferences have less to do with gender than with age. Those differences do serve as reliable conversational icebreakers among the various age groups represented in an office, however. (“Wasn’t Paul McCartney in some other band before Wings?”)

Preferences in office decor have nothing to do with whether your shirt buttons are on the right side or the left. Some people embellish workspaces with artwork or plants; some of us consider yellow sticky notes as decorative accessories.

Still, some offices do take on a distinctively “guy” or “girl” character. I can remember one place I worked where the men used to throw a football back and forth across the office every afternoon. My female colleagues and I were debating what we could throw that would be an appropriate counter — the unabridged version of The Joy of Cooking, a box of Pampers, maybe a fully loaded makeup case? — when the most resourceful among us solved the problem simply by hiding the football in a filing cabinet.

In earlier publishing times, when copy had to be typeset, the publication I worked for used a typesetting service run by a gaggle of grandmothers whose offices were filled with knitted afghans and fresh banana bread wrapped in foil. You could get instructions for hemming a skirt or advice on your love life. What you couldn’t always get was your copy typeset on time. I personally found it difficult to complain — it’s hard to talk with a mouthful of banana bread and it seemed a little like taking on your own grandmother. But one day I reminded the owner that this was the second time in two days I had come by to pick up some work that wasn’t ready. She patted my hand and said, “And you know, honey, we were just saying how much we love seeing you.”

So I sat down to wait. It was nice and warm in the office.

Categories: Business Casual