Saying goodbye to work attire
Restrictive clothing doesn't boost productivity (imagine that)
I remember the days of formal work attire. I began that phase of my life earlier than most, with a job as a bank teller when I was 16. I had to be at work fifteen minutes after the school day ended, so I often wore bank-appropriate clothing to high school. I had skirts, heels, and jewelry. (Side note: this became my signature look in high school and I was damn proud of it.) Or, in the alternative, I’d speed over to the bank office and quickly change in my car before going into the building.
Then my first job after college was at a banking software company. While the in-office attire was fairly casual, I traveled on-site to banks up to 50% of the time to facilitate software onboarding. A few banks had moved to polos and khakis, but most were still very button-up. Plus, I was representing my company—I had to look nice.
I remember one trip where the airline lost my suitcase. I arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska with nothing except the sweatpants and t-shirt I’d worn on the plane. I immediately went to the local mall and bought three new outfits, down to accessories and shoes. I couldn’t really afford such unplanned purchases, but I was horrified by the idea that I wouldn’t appear “office appropriate” the next day.
Because my experiences with office clothing started when I was so young, I carried the misconception that clothing was somehow tied to effort. Even when I began working from home, I spent years “getting ready” in the morning. I thought I could jump-start my day if there was a clear line between “home clothing” and “work-from-home” clothing.
And that mentality may be true for some people, but there isn’t any over-arching evidence that clothing makes a difference in an employee’s results. So let’s talk about attire.
Is clothing tied to productivity?
It’s bad enough that workers are being forced back into the office but, in some cases, this comes with the mandate of Work-Appropriate Clothing.
Some employers are almost… gleeful?… about this. See Exhibit A, photos from an office “welcoming” workers back.
The company later commented that the signage “missed the mark.”
Or Exhibit B, Mayor Eric Adams’s plea for workers to return to New York City offices, saying, “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day.” (Yes, we can. Just watch us.)
The unspoken—or in Adams’s case, spoken—assumption is that office attire is somehow connected to productivity. Being in the office = more focused, and part of that “focus” comes from the formality of the office environment. There are no distractions like laundry or kids… right? The return-to-office cheerleaders insist that the benefits are worthwhile, even though multiple studies show that people are more productive at home.
Their wallets are happier as well, since in 2019 the average U.S. employee spent $1,883 per year on work-related clothing. Another survey found that office workers spent an average of 27.8 minutes getting ready for the day.
Clothing isn’t something that’s talked about as much since much of the rhetoric is around commute time and work-life balance. But, like many other aspects of remote work, the freedom to choose one’s daily attire has both personal and professional impacts.
I changed my tune on work attire
By 2015, I’d been working from home for more than 6 years. In that timeframe, I had two babies. I relaxed my approach to work-from-home attire a bit but not nearly as much as you might think—especially considering that all of my calls were via phone, not video. No one could see me, yet I still put on nice jeans, a nice shirt, and makeup every day.
Then in September of that year, I lost a baby girl, more than halfway through my pregnancy. It was shocking and devastating. I’d never experienced such intense grief, and it wasn’t something that just “went away” within a few weeks or months.
I’ve spoken openly about how working remotely gave me space to grieve on my own terms, but I’ve rarely mentioned the physical aspects. Because I was five months pregnant, I’d already gained 20 pounds. To add insult to injury, that weight was very difficult to lose. I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw a pregnant person—and one who no longer fit into the jeans I’d been wearing for years.
I bought some baggy shirts and leggings to accommodate my changed shape. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my opinion about the relationship between clothing and work had changed. I stopped associating “getting ready” with a productive day of work. At that time, getting out of bed was a win.
I share this because offices and office attire are another example of “check your personal life at the door.” For people who may be struggling with depression or grief, the act of getting ready can be an enormous burden.
Or think of the busy parent juggling small children and endless loads of laundry who also needs to ensure that work attire is cleaned and pressed each morning.
Or the stifling of personal expression. Office attire enforces conformity, with everything from frowned-upon piercings and tattoos (that have no bearing on productivity or results) to suppressing culturally significant clothing.
Clothing also widens the divide between people who can afford a specific “look” for the office and those who can’t. Dress-to-impress has been a longtime office norm, when really, it’s nothing more than a costume and a distraction than an indication of one’s ability to produce results.
Research supports that work attire is unnecessary
Setting aside all reasons that office attire is bad for employees (though any company that cares about its people should care), let’s look at how office attire impacts productivity.
Oh, wait. It has no bearing.
Researchers found the opposite to be true. Comfortable clothing while working from home “boosted workers’ feelings of authenticity and engagement.”
Tech companies ditched the traditional office dress codes a long time ago. But the increase of work-from-home has merged two worlds: casual work attire and better work-life balance.
The pandemic shifted perceptions around many norms that we held dear. Does the meeting with a client need to include a three-piece suit? The kids yelling or dog barking in the background have thrown formality out the window. We all mutually understood that work could still occur, regardless of location and attire.
Sure, some people may want to get ready for the day, even when working from home. They feel that it’s part of a morning routine, or creates the degree of separation between work-life and home-life that I once felt. I’ll admit that I pay a little more attention to the shirt I’m wearing on specific video calls.
But it’s a personal choice and that’s the point. Ridding the professional world of office attire creates a more inclusive work environment.
Can a physical office create this type of inclusivity by removing its dress code? I’m skeptical. The unspoken assumptions will still remain, or there will still be some limits. People won’t show up in pajama pants or will spend money on “fancy” casual attire.
All office-related roads go back to the same theme: putting what the company wants above what the employees want.
As I write this, I’m sitting in my (unbearably hot) office. I’m wearing a sundress that would be suitable for a beach. Most of my tattoos are visible and my hair is barely combed. On other days, I’ve gone for a run in the middle of the day, come home, and changed from my sweaty workout clothes into something fresh. I also have easy access to all of my layers—often switching between various sweaters as temps fluctuate.
My clothing is never a distraction. Because work is something I do, not something I wear.
In the News: Winning the war for talent
Apple is known for technical innovation, but its return-to-office policy lacks a clear-eyed view of the future. Apple employees will be returning to the office three days per week beginning May 23rd: Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.
Many employees have expressed frustration with this policy, but the most notable was the resignation of Apple’s director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow. In a goodbye note, Goodfellow is reported to have said, “I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team.”
Goodfellow will undoubtedly find another role easily, yet the loss to Apple is huge. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Airbnb has stated that it saw 800,000 visits to its careers page after it announced a permanent “work from anywhere” policy.
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