When Gregory Sarafan, a 33-year-old litigator, started commuting from Jersey City, N.J., to his job in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood in May, he wore a suit and tie. He would also leave 30 minutes earlier than necessary so he would have time to cool off in his private office before heading to court one block away.
“I sat under the vents in my office and would wipe sweat off my face with some paper towels,” he says. “There’s really not much more that you can do besides take your jacket and tie off and just sit there and let your body cool.”
But as temperatures began climbing over 90 degrees some days, Mr. Sarafan started stashing a suit, dress shirts, a handful of ties and dress shoes in his office to change into. For his commute in, which involves a train and 2 miles of walking, he dons a T-shirt and light pair of pants, which he says is infinitely preferable to suffering inside a sweat-drenched suit jacket.
“No one wants their lawyer to show up looking disheveled,” he says.
Bosses are struggling to bring office workers back just as the mercury is soaring. After two pandemic summers when many jobs could be done virtually in shorts—Mr. Sarafan’s court appearances were on Zoom—workers are re-confronting the hot mess of trekking to the office in sweltering heat.
Some are finding creative ways to cope. And those who have the option to toil from home are sometimes choosing to go into the office because there’s air-conditioning there. Free pizza hasn’t worked. But companies may finally have something that will blast employees back to the workplace—central air.
Eric Busseau, a 28-year-old financial consultant in Chicago, says he now decides whether to go to the office based on how hot and humid the forecast says the day will be. “I live in an apartment from like 1924 and I’ve got window air conditioners,” he says, “but it does not compete with the industrial-strength air-conditioning of my office tower.”
With so many people jostling together as they head to work, there can be competition to keep cool.
Hank Lockie, an auditor, says the train to his Chicago office gets stuffy when filled with commuters. “I definitely try to be near the AC,” he says. “But if that’s not possible, I try and get the farthest into the train that I can. Away from the doors. Usually I’m able to find room to fan.”
He has fashioned his fan from printer paper to use on the train. “I occasionally see a stray eyebrow raise,” he says. But he thinks fellow riders can relate. “We’re all sweaty and uncomfortable.”
On his walk from the station to his office, Mr. Lockie, 28, plays a kind of hopscotch to dodge the sun: “I try to stick to the side of the street that the buildings are shading.”
Before commuter Paul Cerro enters New York City’s muggy subway stations, he rolls up his shirt sleeves. Then he scours the station for the coldest spot. He has figured out where the vents blasting cold air sit in some stations though functionality can be hit or miss.
“Sometimes these vents actually blow like super cold air so you can just stand underneath them, but other times the same vents may be blowing lukewarm air,” says Mr. Cerro, 28, who works in technology. In the latter case, “you’re kind of like tricking your body into believing that it’s less warm than it actually is because it thinks it’s wind instead of stagnant air.”
Jim Serrano, a 55-year-old actor who has appeared in shows including Disney+’s “The Right Stuff” improvises by putting gel ice packs in his armpits after his walk to a condo in Orlando where he tapes auditions. He keeps the packs, leftover from meal-plan kits, in the freezer there. “It sounds a little gross but I put them right next to my skin under the T-shirt,” he says.
To ensure he doesn’t arrive a sweaty shambles after his bike ride from his light rail stop to his office in Dallas, Blake Roark applies anti-perspiration sunscreen to his face and wears a ventilated helmet. He cycles at a deliberately slower speed—a sweet spot of around 10 miles an hour that he arrived at after much experimentation in over 80-degree heat.
Mr. Roark found his vented helmet, which allows airflow to move over his head, by happy accident. He was shopping for one with a detachable visor that could shield his face from bugs and noticed the online description touted the helmet’s cooling abilities too. “It doesn’t leave me with much forehead sweat by the time my ride has ended,” says Mr. Roark, 28, who works in academic administration.
Still, intersections make him nervous. “When you’re just sitting there for two to three minutes, you really do feel the heat coming down on you,” he says.
Chloé Pascual, a 39-year-old librarian in Long Beach, Calif., sports bike shorts under tank dresses during her bike ride to the office and then changes out of the shorts once she arrives. “It just solves all sorts of problems like feeling sweaty and worrying about my skirt flying up,” she says.
Though some employers have relaxed dress codes to make coming back to the office more appealing, shorts remain a no-no for all but the most casual of workplaces, says John Dooney, HR knowledge adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management.
“We do not go that far,” says
chief human resource officer at Milliken & Company, an industrial manufacturer in Spartanburg, S.C., that relaxed its dress code earlier this year as it recalled employees to its offices. Polo-style shirts, jeans and sneakers are approved, except for days with client meetings, but shorts, sleeveless clothing with straps of less than 2 inches and flip-flops are still banned.
Some workers dodge the finer points of office politics by not going in. The summer sun is weakening their resolve.
On a particularly hot day in June, Christopher Pich was fed up with his un-air-conditioned home office. “I kind of caved in and said I’m going to go into campus and enjoy the air conditioning,” says Dr. Pich, 37, a senior lecturer in marketing and branding in the business school at Nottingham Trent University in England.
He prefers working from home and hated the one-hour commute but says it was a good decision because he had an important video meeting. “I knew it would be a long meeting,” he says, “and I didn’t want to have to sit in my home office and just melt.”
Katheryn Wenger, a 33-year-old associate at a law firm in San Francisco, opts for the office when it’s going to be a hot day since her apartment doesn’t have air conditioning.
“I just can’t concentrate when it’s so hot in my apartment,” she says. The office air conditioning, she adds, makes it worth going in.
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