article » Even as Austin Broils, the Work Must Go On

Even as Austin Broils, the Work Must Go On

August 19, 2014
3 min read

It’s that time of year again when Austin starts to hit broil.

It’s also that time of year when I start to wonder, “why do I live here again?” and “what is the current temperature in Hawaii?”

And as a more practical matter: “How does anyone possibly work in these conditions?” The reality is, some of our neighbors’ and friends’ jobs force them to ply their trades in our intense Central Texas heat — even when the outdoor temperatures top 100 degrees. Looking at how Austinites work in all sorts of conditions — such as extreme heat — is part of what will make working on this new column, called “In the Workplace,” so interesting.

The column’s aim is to take a deeper look at workplace life in Central Texas — how our jobs help define us, our level of workplace satisfaction, the causes of and solutions to workplace stress, how we deal with troublesome co-workers or tyrannical managers, and all of the other things that affect us as we try to earn a paycheck. As we are hitting the peak of Austin’s annual summer sizzle, starting off with a look at how we deal with working in extreme heat seems appropriate.

For some of us, the heat is an inconvenience as workers shuttle from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned office. But for other workers, the heat is a serious concern and can be a life or death challenge as they work outdoors. Each summer, local emergency personnel gear up for heat-related illness calls, which can run the gamut from heat exhaustion to heat stroke and strike quickly.

Since June, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service workers have responded to 146 calls for heat-related illnesses. “The biggest thing is going to be the hydration, that is the biggest key,” said Capt. Darren Noak with Austin-Travis County EMS. And “take frequent breaks if you can, and wear light weight and light colored clothing.” As it turns out, studies show that sizzling heat can have an impact even for office workers. Michael Housman, chief analytics officer for San Francisco-based Evolv, led a study on weather’s impact on workplaces this year and found that warmer weather can have both negative and positive effects on productivity.

The study found in a survey of call centers in warmer locations, workers had better luck making sales. “When we look at the impact of heat, we actually found an positive relationship there when there are warmer temperatures, people tend to convert more sales there,” Housman said. He added with a laugh: “I worry to say this, because companies might crank up the temperatures in their offices.” But at the other end of that spectrum, the study showed customer service improves in cooler locations and could be hindered in warmer locations.

For example, the study found for every 10 degree drop in temperature, customer satisfaction marks rose about one-tenth of 1 percent, which can add up, Housman said. “It’s possible in the cold, people are more friendly, and in the warmer temperatures, people can be testy and aggressive,” said Housman, who says he has visited Austin during our “pretty hot” summer days.

However, it seems heat can also promote better workplace attendance. The study found that even light rain and snow “were associated with high absenteeism among workers.” The upshot, the study found, is that weather can play a role even in such major decisions such as where a company locates its business. If a business is focused on customer service, it might be better off in the Northeast.

But if it’s interested in converting sales, locating in the Southwest, in a site such as Austin, could be a benefit.

So “the biggest implication here is to think before you locate a business in a certain area,” Housman said.

Donna Childs, author of “Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses,” suggests one way to combat extreme heat is have workers telecommute if possible or avoid meeting at the hottest time of the day.

“I always offer to re-schedule our meetings until the weather is more moderate,” says Childs, who does some work in Texas.

“I also recommend telecommuting arrangements, where feasible, for such employees.”

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