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By Wilma Bedford

Many of the most significant dress code changes have been caused by major events such as the two world wars and the new economic, social and international pressures they brought about, shaping current and future trends. What does this mean today for a workforce that has largely traded more formal office attire for a casual work-from-home wardrobe in the wake of the (still with us) Covid-19 pandemic?

For such a long time now, traditional business attire has remained stagnant – suits, shirts and ties for men and fitted dresses or trouser suits with heels for women. In short, the clothes that we wear to work are clothes that most of us rarely wear in our leisure time; they are our uniform in the workplace and a uniform that not all of us feel comfortable wearing for that matter. We have been bound by dress codes for decades, imposed by the bosses of yesteryear and these are codes that haven’t since been updated by anyone.

That being said, quite silently some new and more disruptive businesses have been making their mark in the fashion stakes and sprucing up their dress code. Over the last few years, many will have noted a trend in some industries of employers encouraging employees to wear whatever they want. Two major factors have led to this shift in approach and policy by many companies: the internet and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Firstly, the advent of the internet has brought with it millions of new jobs and has led to some major social upheavals. Secondly, events of the pandemic have opened up conversations about what the next shift in dress codes could look like and how more comfortable work attire could boost productivity. As the pandemic completely decoupled work and presence in the office, employees at many companies switched to something even less starchy.

Working from home has led to a more relaxed style, even working in slippers and pyjamas, which will be a no-no when going back to the office. Nevertheless, it has highlighted the fact that working from home and even attending meetings on Zoom in more comfortable apparel have led to better inputs in a more comfortable work environment.

However, most companies have not put any guidelines in place as to what is and isn’t (or will and won’t be) appropriate in the workplace. Although the Delta variant is forcing companies to delay a return to the office, that day will come. When workers are back at their desks –  at least some of the time –  new sartorial rules may be required.

Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodies and casual T-shirt has been the poster boy for a laidback dress code policy. The late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, wore the same outfit each day to avoid thinking about what to wear.

This has helped to make formal dress codes look anachronistic – but this shift, briefly revolutionary, has now become the status quo. This can only influence more businesses, including those with long-standing, traditional formal dress codes, as societal change leads to a more relaxed outlook.

The company HR1 did a quick poll on whether dress code still matters in the workplace these days. Thirty-four percent (34%) of respondents believed that what you wear does indeed matter in the workplace, 24% said that office attire doesn’t matter and that the key was just doing a good job, while 43% of respondents suggested it was a combination of the two.

While these results weren’t necessarily concrete either way, what they do confirm is that we are entering a new normal when it comes to office attire as well as our ways of working. When we go back into the office does anything go now? Should we dress the same on a Zoom call as we would when we go to a face-to-face meeting? And perhaps most interestingly, how much does what we wear say about our personal brand and overall professionalism?

Lee McClane, Sales Manager at Asset Finance, believes “it’s time to make business attire extinct for the general office environment. It has been for years. Business attire doesn’t look smart, it just looks dated”.

Employees have more choice than ever before. And greater flexibility. There are roles across the world waiting for eager staff to move to in an instant, meaning staff aren’t as restricted by nationality as with previous generations. Coupled with shifting public attitudes, it’s forcing businesses to loosen their levels of bureaucracy to create a more welcoming workplace. Do so and you have a better chance of securing the best talent.

In this era of diverse workplaces, where we celebrate how an office can be crammed with workers from various destinations around the globe, it brings with it the need to embrace differing cultures. It’s helped us all relax around each other a touch more than in the past, and it’s easier to celebrate diversity if you feel comfortable in what you’re wearing. A societal change has led to a more relaxed outlook.

Communicating brand values, in fact, is one of the main purposes of any workplace dress code, says Sarah Lawrance FCPA, founder and “chief dreamer” of Sydney accounting firm Hot Toast. “Everything we do, from the adoption of technology to how we talk to our clients, to how we present ourselves, creates particular perceptions. It is how we want to come across to you,” Lawrance says.

Before developing a dress code, a business’s leaders must first develop an intimate understanding of the culture the organisation wishes to embody and communicate to its market. Corporate dress codes offer a shortcut in terms of decisions about attire, but also go a long way in communicating an organisation’s culture and brand values.

How then does a business identify and define its own culture, and therefore decide on a suitable dress code to help communicate that culture?

When an industry, a company or an individual wants to broadcast solemn professionalism, security, consistency and trustworthiness – or, on the contrary, creativity, daring and artistic flair – dressing a certain way helps communicate brand values.

Sofie Carfi, lecturer at the Australia College of the Arts, maintains that a growing awareness of climate change, as well as supply interruptions caused by the pandemic, means trends and fashions are also likely to change as individuals seek out “slow fashion”.

“Technology means people are able to personalise their clothing and order shoes in a unique colour. Fashion is becoming more fluid and based less on annual collections. Much of this is a result of changed behaviours around the pandemic.”

Legally, businesses are perfectly within their rights to enforce a dress code policy, just be aware your workers will expect some leeway. Flip-flops may be out, but jeans could be a welcome trade-off.

If you’re a business, your dress code has to start somewhere. An HR department is there to establish the right dress code at work. It’s about understanding the corporate deliberation that goes into establishing how you’ll spend your days looking and feeling.

You’ll need to avoid dress code discrimination, consider health and safety issues, plus the one size fits all approach. It’s a complex issue and one a lot of people will have different opinions about.

“You never get a second chance at a first impression,” says Dr Lorinda Cramer of the Australian Catholic University. “We all judge each other when we first meet, largely on appearance, because that’s all the information we have. So, dress code communicates information within and outside an organisation. In this business, we need to look professional but not ‘suited and booted’, because our market – creatives and start-ups – don’t relate to the ‘suit culture’.

“I want us to feel like an extension of our clients’ industry, an extension of their business.  You can’t do that if your client works, and communicates, and looks a certain way, and your culture is clearly different to theirs.”

According to Paul Luczak CPA, director of The Gild Group, personnel dress to suit their client bases, and that’s simply common sense. His business works across numerous industries, and never has he had to reprimand a staff member for underdressing or overdressing.

“In our handbook, there is a comment on dress code but, once inducted, it’s possible that slightly more casual clothing, looser-fit tailoring and lighter fabrics that are better for the heat will become more acceptable in offices.

“Having a dress code, or a dress convention, removes or limits the element of choice, which could actually confer a psychological benefit by offering a shortcut.

“Now is the perfect time for these conversations to be had, about what people wear to the office and whether it should change. Track suit pants and slippers will never be appropriate, but why wouldn’t we take steps to ensure staff are as comfortable as possible? It makes sense to talk about this right now, since the pandemic has paved the way,” says Luczak.

Bartleby recommends that employees maintain a degree of formal presentation. Dressing with taste and elegance does not have to involve designer clothes or expensive watches. It signals commitment and seriousness. A freshly laundered, crisp shirt announces to the world that you have made an effort; a tracksuit does not.

Listen to staff feedback, adapt where necessary, and set a positive dress code policy that helps define your culture. Dress code is as relevant as ever, but it now has the power to make your staff enjoy the working experience even more.

What you wear is who you are; it’s your part of your personal brand. The key is to be the authentic you. Be groomed, on brand and smart even if you are casually dressed. Most importantly though, be comfortable in your own skin so you can love what you do.

 

Sources

Does dress code matter in the post-pandemic workplace?

Ruth Cornish. 23 July 2021.

https://www.thehrdirector.com/features/future-of-work/

The new look of workplace dress codes.

Chris Sheedy. 1 July 2021.

https://www.intheblack.com/articles/2021/07/01-workplac-dress-code

Office dress codes: Are they still relevant?

Alex Morris. 11 June 2018.

https://www.business2community.com/resources/

The pandemic has refashioned corporate dress codes.

Bartleby. 11 Sept. 2021.

https://www.economist.com/business/2012/09/11/

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