Grounds for Dismissal: Duct and Cover

Business Technology’s resident US blogger Keil Hubert takes a sideways look at a critical piece of office tech often overlooked by workers and managers alike: the air conditioning.

All of last week’s chatter about the elements of business technology that we take for granted triggered an interesting sequence of ideas for me. I’ve noticed around our office that coffee consumption decreases as the temperature in the office increases.

Every spring and summer, for example, the facilities people change the settings for our offices from around 65° F to nearly 80° in order to reduce the demand on the building’s air conditioners. As the office heats up, fewer people choose hot beverages. That’s perfectly normal human behavior.

Air conditioning units. Image by Ariaski via Flickr.

Breezy: Air conditioning is as much a part of modern office life as water coolers and telephones.

That thought, then, led to the next logical source of business technology that we all take for granted: the aircon system. No one thinks much about it until it’s not working, and then you’re likely to have a riot – especially if you work in a blisteringly hot climate like I do.

For some folks it’s always too darned cold in the office. You’ll see those people wearing fleece jumpers and coats that don’t match their outfits, and even bringing blankets into the office. For others, it’s never cool enough. This second group of folks run around in the least amount of covering allowable. Good luck getting the gents to keep their suit coats on. Oddly, no one ever seems to be able to agree with anyone else as to what the right settings should be. In older buildings, where you can manually control the thermostat, this can lead to outright war between the competing factions.

In most modern buildings – and in some older buildings that are being retrofitted in order to become more “green” – the entire aircon setup is actually a complex system of machines, sensors and computers that can’t function without extensive networking and expensive software. Infrastructure is always critical to communications systems and is almost always ignored – those cables in the wall may as well be magic as far as the average end user is concerned.

Have you ever opened up a wall socket to see the complexity behind?

Under the skin: Have you ever looked behind the cover of a wall socket?

So long as the phone gives a dial tone when the user picks up the handset, the average worker will never stop to consider the cabling, switches, firewalls, IDS/IPS, log aggregators, call handlers and what-not that go into making that simple handset perform its intended task. Aircon is even more abstract; people react to a temperature that they don’t like, and rarely ever stop to consider how all the pieces interoperate.

A good example of unnecessarily disruptive reactions to office temperature happened around our campus several years ago. Our top executive had an office on the north-west corner of the building, selected for its excellent view of the nearby lake. Over the course of one typical Texas summer, the executive would complain bitterly every day to his top managers that his office was always “too hot.”

On several occasions, he demanded that the facilities department “lower the temperature” in his office. They struggled to comply. It reached the point where so much cold air was being directed to the half of the building where the executives’ offices were that most of the other employees there took to wearing jackets all day long. Still, the man continued to complain that it was still “too hot.”

The whole situation came to a head one afternoon when the boss simply lost patience with everyone and everything. He demanded that facilities drop whatever they were doing and come out to fix his problem immediately. Curious, the senior engineer on duty logged in to the building’s HVAC [1] control system and couldn’t find anything untoward. He dutifully grabbed his thermal analysis gear and trotted up to the executive’s office to take temperature readings in order to learn why the perceived temperature in the office was inconsistent with the readings from the sensors in the room. 

Keep your cool: Temperature is a potential conflict point for office workers.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the best decision the engineer could have made. When the earnest young technician showed up with a bunch of kit to analyze the boss’s office, the executive thought that the facilities people were trying to call him a liar– if you’ve ever inadvertently infuriated your top executive, you can imagine how that exchange played out. It’s still being talked about around the office long after that particular executive has moved on.

In the end, the problem was as much a matter of physics as it was of perspectives. First, it was established that the executive simply “ran hotter” than most other people in the building. Can’t help that; it’s just physiology. Complicating the problem, however, were elements that weren’t readily obvious … unless you knew how the whole system functioned technologically.

See, the entire building’s HVAC system was fully computerized. There were sensors run into every major office that continuously monitored the temperature. A central computer analyzed the data, and constantly tweaked the air handlers in the ducting system to throttle up and down the amount of conditioned air that fed each part of the building.

It was quite elegant, really; the massive chillers that fed the building would work no harder than they absolutely had to (thereby saving money on electricity during peak demand) since just the right amount of cold air could be concentrated inside the building where it was needed. At least, that was the theory.

Black office desk. Image from RobsComputer via Flickr

Boiling point: Dark office furniture means you’re retaining heat – and potential problems.

In this case, the habits and tastes of the executive himself were throwing off all that brilliant, invisible tech. When he’d first come on board, he had replaced all of his furniture with obsidian-colored solid wood products. He also lined one entire wall with imposing, solid wood bookshelves. He got himself a midnight-colored, high back, leather chair. He kept the blinds to the North- and West-facing windows open all of the time in order to enjoy his view of the lake [2].

When the engineers actually analyzed the room, they discovered that the perceived temperature really did differ significantly from what the sensors read.

It turned out that one of the bookshelves was keeping the sensor in shadow, and also was in the path of the room’s ceiling vent. That sensor was measuring ambient air that hadn’t yet started to chill the space. Worse, the executive’s chair and dark colored furniture were soaking up the afternoon sunlight from those open windows. Even his black plastic keyboard, mouse, computer and LCD monitor were all heating up from about ten in the morning on. Put together, the poor fellow sitting in the big chair always felt anywhere from two to twelve degrees warmer than the master computer believed the room was at.

None of that explanation, of course, helped the engineer who infuriated the big boss. Last I heard, the poor man had been posted overseas.

Office coffee machine. From Wolfgang Lonien via Flickr.

Elixir of life: Coffee machines and other creature comforts provide great benefits for employee morale.

My point to all this is that there are morsels of technological systems deployed throughout our businesses that make or break employee morale. Most of those, from the coffee brewer to the aircon controller to the safely lights in the car park, all involve a great deal of engineering wizardry. They’re all nearly invisible to the end users, too.

People get (rightfully) upset when things fail, but they also get moody and irritable when things work almost right, but not quite as desired. Unfortunately, when people don’t understand how systems function, they get frustrated. They don’t know who or what to blame, and so their anger spills over on to one another.

If you ever want to watch the effect play out, ask your facilities boffins to subtly tweak the temperature and humidity controls in the office just a little – up one day and down the next, alternating, until everyone is at each other’s throats. It’s amazing how otherwise rational and mature people can lose their minds.

I submit that it’s our role as business technologists to understand the synergistic interrelationship of all the supporting technologies so that we can explain these problems to our angry co-workers, and also help preempt the “heated executive” kind of incidents through applied engineering design, user education and a smidgen of common sense.


 The first column in this series, ‘Ground For Dismissal,’ received a lot of positive buzz on Facebook over the last week. Thanks to everyone who posted a wry comment about how the failure of the office coffee maker meant doom for his or her respective organization. I’ve enjoyed hearing your horror stories.

[1] HVAC = Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning. Usually pronounced “Ache’-vak.”

[2] And, we always suspected, to spy on the parking lot so that he could know who was skiving off work.

Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own). His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.

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