Is it too cold for you to work today?

Colder temperatures are sending workers shivering into UK offices - but as energy prices rise, how can employers balance staff comfort with budgets?

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

If you had trouble getting out of bed this morning, don’t feel bad. Last night was the coldest November evening since 2010. Now, research shows a quarter of us feel too cold at work, as rising energy prices turn radiators into a precious business commodity.

BusinessComparison surveyed 2,000 people across the UK about their indoor temperature preferences. 25% said they always felt too cold, including more than one-third of Greater Londoners.

Workers are feeling the chill this year, as record low temperatures grip the UK. But employers have been left between a rock and a cold place, after the chancellor’s Autumn Statement left SMEs with no support for surging energy bills this winter.

As the MetOffice forewarns of three more days of snow warnings, companies across the UK are now wondering how low they can safely go when it comes to workplace temperatures.

Brits brace for Winter of Discomfort

Ofgem has announced that the energy price cap – which limits the amount that energy suppliers can charge for domestic bills – will soon rise by 5% in January.

This is timed just as this winter’s first cold snap has been forecast for the weekend, and has consequences for employee bank accounts.

The challenge for workers is to navigate the rising cost of living, without catching a chill. Last year, Startups’ research showed that it was cheaper for employees to commute into work, given how expensive home offices have become to run.

This is particularly true in winter, when energy consumption rises as people use more gas and electricity to heat their homes and keep lights on for longer.

However, the choice has become more blurred as a result of rising business energy costs. The BusinessComparison research suggests that the office is becoming as frosty as the study, creating financial struggles for both employee and employer.

When questioned over whether people will feel the need to take control of their thermostat this winter due to energy costs rising more so than ever before, a resounding 70% said yes.

Women employees are most likely to feel the pinch in the cold weather. 76% of women said they’d be inclined to turn down the heating as a cost-saving measure, compared to 64% of men. This is despite women being more likely to feel cold than men.

Biological differences mean that men’s average preferred temperature is 20 degrees to a woman's 21 degrees. Accordingly, the BusinessComparison research found that women are more likely to report feeling cold while working from home or at the office.

North officially hardier than the South

The research also explored a regional breakdown of the average preferred temperatures in the UK. The results reveal a North-South divide when it comes to dialling up the thermostat.

Aligning with the Game of Thrones mantra, “winter is coming”, those in the Northern regions appear to be more prepared for colder temperatures. Northerners prefer to work in temperatures of 20 degrees, on average.

Meanwhile, so-called ‘Southern Softies’ prefer to work in 21 degree heat, reflecting the warmer climate enjoyed by places in the east and south of the UK.

Business energy costs rise as temperatures fall

As the weather gets colder, businesses across the UK are facing an energy bill storm that will make the decision about what temperature to keep their workplaces tougher.

The BusinessComparison research indicates that workplaces could be toastier. But few budgets will allow an increase. Nine out of ten small businesses have seen energy prices rise by an average of 25% this year, according to a recent survey from Paragon Bank.

Many have also been locked into high contracts as fixed-rate deals were secured with energy brokers while prices were high. Some have even faced closure as a result.

Such dire financial conditions have severely weakened SME cash flow and thrown spending forecasts into disarray. In July, research found that approximately 1.5 million SMEs in the UK are contemplating dipping into their personal savings to keep their businesses afloat.

Despite the chaos, government help for small business energy bills has been gradually reduced over the past two years. The Energy Bill Relief Scheme (EBRS) was replaced by a much less generous Energy Bill Discount Scheme (EBDS) in April 2023.

The EBDS is itself due to vanish at the end of March, despite energy prices being forecast to rise again in 2024.

Sector leaders had called for greater aid to be unveiled in the Autumn Statement on November 22nd. However, no announcements were made.

Cost-saving measures for businesses

SMEs that are concerned about the cost of heating offices next year might consider following in the footsteps of firms like HSBC to downsize the office in 2024. By switching to a smaller square footage, the cost of insulation will also decrease.

Another option is to invest in a coworking space. Because these spaces are owned and managed by a provider, rather than a landlord, tenants are not responsible for settling utility fees like hot water, gas, and electricity.

This is a particularly good option for firms based in Greater London. When questioned about whether they will take measures to control their thermostat this winter, this area showed the most concern over energy rising costs at 39%.

Not surprisingly, since London was recently found to be the most expensive location for coworking space in the world.

> More on this: read our guide to the top providers of cheap London coworking space.

Legal temperature at work

Health and safety laws in the UK do not currently specify a legal maximum or minimum working temperature. Government guidance does state that a reasonable figure is at least 16°C.

However, this is a minimum requirement and is certainly not conducive to a safe, productive workplace. Staff can only work so hard with numb fingers, after all.

Employees are entitled to a work environment where they feel comfortable and valued. If temperatures drop too drastically, their health and wellbeing at work could be compromised, lowering morale and employee engagement.

More dramatically, excessively cold temperatures could ultimately end up causing a range of serious conditions for employees, including frostbite, hypothermia and chilblains. This could lead to a hike in sickness absence amongst the workforce.

As part of its research, BusinessComparison spoke to Dr Adedeji Saheed, a practising medical doctor. Saheed suggests the ideal temperature for workplaces is 22 degrees: cool enough to help maintain alertness, warm enough to be comfortable.

Trade industries hardest hit by cold weather

The employees who are most at risk of cold temperatures are those who work in trade sectors like construction and agriculture.

Manufacturing businesses, and those based in larger warehouse units, will struggle to insulate more than smaller office-based firms. Naturally, this sector is also most likely to face hiked energy costs this winter.

Businesses based in defined ‘energy-intensive' sectors, had previously received a higher energy bill discount through the Energy Bill Discount Scheme. Firms saw a discount of up to £40.0 per MWh for gas and £89.1 per MWh for electricity automatically applied to invoices. However, this support will disappear on 31 March 2024.

Toolbox, a trade insurance firm, has provided seven tips for keeping warm while working on construction sites this winter.

These include insulating your hands, neck, and face to protect heat loss. Offsite workers should also prepare an emergency kit with resources like hand warmers, spare clothing, and shoes.

A Toolbox spokesperson advises Startups: “The cold can impair focus, increase the risk of accidents, and lead to cold-related illnesses.

“By prioritising warmth, workers will continue to optimise their performance, make sound decisions, and execute tasks with precision.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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