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Within a week of starting a job a few years ago, Oklahoma resident Sherri Ledbetter was wearing gloves to work. But she wasn't working outside in winter. She was taking calls at a large hospital. The problem was that her office was so over air-conditioned that "it was difficult to type," she says, and "comfort soon won over embarrassment." Besides, her co-workers were just as cold. One woman worked under a blanket.

Ledbetter isn't the only person shivering through summer. Many offices, hotels and conference spaces have people packing sweaters and even space heaters to combat meat-locker temperatures. Since people increasingly care about the environment, and companies look to cut costs, why does this happen?

There are two sides of the problem. "There's the building technology side, and then the other side is the realization that buildings are human," says Jason Bingham, vice president of energy services and controls for Trane North America. "There's a piece of this that's about how humans behave." Fortunately, progress is being made on the engineering front. The human problem is more challenging, but bold action could solve it, too.

Unstable temperature

Keeping a large space at a stable temperature is no small feat. "Technology in the past wasn't designed for optimization," Bingham says. "It was designed to keep things running."

The general guideline (often ignored) is to set the AC at 72 degrees, but even at a reasonable 72, if the thermostat is in a warm or sunny spot then the rest of the building can be colder. People generate heat as they move, and hitting 72 degrees in a crowded space could mean that emptier areas get icy.

The good news is that buildings are getting smarter. Temperature control accounts for 40% of energy bills in commercial buildings, and building managers are increasingly charged with managing costs. Consequently, there is growing interest in localized control, so temperatures no longer have to be set as they long have been: for "the lowest common denominator," Bingham says.

If you think about it, though, it's strange that building-wide AC would be set to please the warm-natured folks who like it at 68 degrees. If it would be cheaper, why not please those who like it at 78?

This is where the human factor comes in.

"It's always been believed — on somewhat shaky evidence — that people work like computer chips. You cool them down some more, and they'll move faster and be more productive," says Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool, a book about AC. In America, there's a bias toward wanting to feel a blast of cold air when you come in from the hot outdoors. People view that as successful design. In 10 minutes, you're freezing, but then you've got new entrants expecting Arctic air.

Matter of clothing

Then there's the question of who sets the temperature. Clothing choices affect perception. If you're in long pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a jacket, 69 feels good. Maybe 63 — the temperature in Ledbetter's office — feels better. If you're in a summer dress and sandals, even 72 may feel cold.

The workplace is changing, but in your average office, a man in a suit is more likely to be in charge than a woman in a dress.

Changing human factors should be easier than redesigning buildings, but attitudes are stubborn things. The key is for business leaders to realize that it's silly to tout green initiatives when employees lug in space heaters. Cold isn't productive; comfort is productive.

"Employees will get up and seek warmth, which means being away from their desk," says Ledbetter (who's no longer at that hospital job). Raising the temperature and then letting people who like it cold work from home — where they pay their own energy bills — is one way to save. If people need to be on-site, then bold leaders should set the tone by dressing for summer, and changing thermostats appropriately. While Hawaiian shirts and shorts might not seem sophisticated, keep in mind that the riches of Silicon Valley were created by guys in hoodies.

Attire is a choice. As is maintaining a temperature that's good for the earth and the bottom line. Anyone requiring cold air can always stick his head in the office fridge.

Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors. To read more columns like this, go to the opinion front page or follow us on twitter @USATopinion or Facebook.

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