As record heat descends across the world, changing weather stands to shake up work as we know it
It’s shaping up to be a hot week in the Forest City, and likewise, much of the world has been suffering under intense, El Niño-inflected heatwaves this summer. And you probably don’t have to look far to see how it’s impacting business, with tired, sweaty and overheated employees, an office that feels sweltering and uncomfortable ― and, increasingly, an impacted bottom line, too.
Last year, the Atlantic Council released research that attempted to shed some light on lost productivity as a result of extreme heat, and came to somewhat startling findings. Looking at 12 cities across the world, they found that “in an average year, these losses total USD $44 billion across the twelve cities in 2020, and the amount will rise to USD 84 billion by 2050 without action to reduce emissions.” Another study estimated that economic losses since 1992 due to heat was between $5 trillion and $29.3 trillion, globally.
There are the dramatic effects, like the crop failures we’ve seen in Western Canada, but also the less obvious cumulative effects of having every worker feeling just a little bit off step as a result of the heat. “What’s really kind of wild about the heat waves we’re in the midst of right now,” said climate scientist Justin Mankin, in an interview with The New York Times, “is not just their magnitude, but the number of people they’re affecting simultaneously.”
An individual business has no control over the heat, obviously, but experts do think that office design and construction choices can be helpful at mitigating the impact of extreme heat moving forward. Engineers have recently created, for instance, a type of white paint that they say can reduce the inside temperature by as much as 1.7 degrees by reflecting sunlight. There are also new forms of concrete that are both environmentally friendly to produce, as well as more thermally efficient than wood and metal.
“But before we get too enthusiastic about all these new technologies, let’s go back to basics,” writes British environmental design lecturer Aurore Julien. Open windows, good airflow, access to cold water ― all easy, cost-effective ways of making the heat bearable. “Lighting, computers, dishwashers and televisions all use electricity, and inevitably produce some heat ― these should be switched off when not in use. That way, we can all keep as cool as possible, all summer long.”