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Is Casual Wear in the Workplace the New Normal? Rethinking the Office Dress Code...

Warren Carter | 27.07.2021

Prior to the COVID pandemic, the office dress code has been commonly referred to as “corporate attire” – that is until now. With the majority of working professionals working from home for more than a year, the pandemic has largely changed how workers consider their at-work clothing choices.

The advent of video technology like Zoom and Teams has made a clear revolutionary change in how we meet and interact with each other. It is becoming increasingly evident that both at-home and workplace attire choices are transitioning to a new normal.

A recent study revealed that 36% of organizations have considered relaxing their dress codes, which is 17% more than reflected in 2014. A separate study nearly echoes this, revealing that more than 40% of companies expanded their casual wear options in the last 3 years.

And perhaps for good reason… Remote work arrangements brought about by the pandemic have given workers the freedom to conveniently choose comfort over style while working.

As the world slowly adapts to the new normal and more offices are reopening and accommodating in-office work, it is a critical time for leaders and HR policy makers to consider what this new office dress code means for businesses and how employees represent the business.

Comfort Over Style: The New Trend

Casual wear is not a new concept in the corporate world. Leaders of globally known companies adopted this trend long before the pandemic started—for example, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his blue jeans and gray T-shirts, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and his hoodies and beanies.

What happens in Silicon Valley often finds its way into other areas of mainstream business. Going shoeless or barefoot for example. Employees in many tech-oriented companies have made shoes optional for employees while in the workplace and on company premises.

Yet, many companies consider this shift to a more relaxed dress code as a novel trend. Global athletic shoe and apparel brand Foot Locker has reported a massive increase in their employees buying more comfortable clothing over the past 18 months. Chief Executive Richard Johnson says they are prioritizing comfort over formality permanently now. Is this yet another potender of the demise of men’s neck ties?

This leads to several questions: What effect does shifting to a more casual dress code have on businesses? What are the pros and cons? What considerations should HR and leadership take in mind when they opt to reform or relax their dress codes? Employee appearance is a reflection of the business’ brand and reputation – will a relaxed dress code help or hurt either?

Relaxed Office Dress Codes: What It Means for Businesses

Advantages of a Relaxed Office Dress Code

Several studies have been conducted that support the many benefits of adopting a casual wear policy at work. A few of these are the following:

  • Improves employee productivity and morale: A study by StitchMine showed that 87% of workers believe adopting a more relaxed office dress code improves morale and that 47% believe it improves productivity as a result.
  • Improves employee satisfaction: Having a relaxed dress code demonstrates flexibility and inspires creativity and individuality. Several studies have also supported that employees generally respond better to employers that are less rigid. Additionally, it cultivates a more open and inclusive work culture, which leads to a more motivated workforce.
  • Lessens workplace bias: In the same study, 57% of workers report that they feel they are assessed more on performance over appearance.
  • Better office camaraderie and improved relationships: Casual wear makes employees feel much more comfortable and this leads to more relaxed interactions with one another. The StitchMine study also revealed that 43% of workers view their boss as more approachable.
  • A work benefit with no cost for employers: Employees need not spend a lot on office wear. In fact, the StichMine study showed that 81% of employees consider a relaxed office dress code as a work benefit—all without any costs for employers.

Disadvantages of a Relaxed Office Dress Code

Casual wear policy is not without disadvantages. A few of its cons are the following:

  • May appear less professional to customers: This is especially true for customer-facing roles—poor first impressions could negatively impact your business and / or brand’s reputation. It may also lead to confusion, as it becomes difficult to distinguish between employees and customers. With that said, casual wear may only be more appropriate for certain roles.
  • May be counterproductive: Despite the statistics provided in the previous section saying that 47% of workers report better productivity when wearing casual attire to work, there is still the question of the remaining 53%. Some employees may work less seriously, leading to decreases in productivity.
  • May be open to interpretation: Without clear workplace dress code guidelines, some employees may take advantage of the relaxed policy and wear inappropriate clothing, especially in warmer climates and seasons. The best way to counter this is to establish and communicate what casual wear is deemed appropriate within your company.

Virtual versus On-Site & In-Person…

What are the implications for that segment of the workforce permanently ensconced in working from home? It seems this segment of the workforce will have one of the greatest impacts on how workplace clothing is designed and sold in the future. When the person meeting via Zoom, Teams or other video conferencing is only partially visible, what is the new normal then? One can surmise that if one is only partially visible to a webcam, that both men and women can wear shirts or blouses that reflect a professional appearance while wearing comfortable attire that is not visible. In a pre-pandemic world, a higher degree of attention had to be placed on the full wardrobe and the dry cleaning or care and cleaning associated with it. In a post-pandemic world, the business suit may be relegated to the further reaches of one’s closet and reduced dry cleaning adding to an employee’s savings.

HR Considerations When Adopting a Casual Dress Code

An important thing to consider is that there is no universal or general agreement as to what is considered “business casual” attire. As Darlene Price, president of Well Said Inc., put it, it depends on several factors, including but not limited to:

  • Type of company/industry
  • Size of the company and number of employees
  • Average age of workforce
  • Amount of interaction between workers and customers/clients
  • Geographical location and respective culture

Typically, industries that require more customer-facing roles either in-person or during video conferencing, would do best with maintaining consistent guidelines or in retail or food & beverage settings – an office uniform. The type of role is also important to consider. Construction and healthcare workers will undoubtedly need to stick with prescribed uniforms for safety, efficiency and wellbeing concerns.

If your company is leaning towards a more casual dress code, or to introduce Casual Fridays or similar, it is vital to establish clear guidelines on what types of clothing are deemed appropriate or inappropriate in your business. It is also essential to note that standards may vary in certain cultures and across geographies.

Our recruiting colleagues in Mexico, Chile, Brazil and other parts of Latin America often take a more conservative approach and stick with traditional norms versus the norm-breaking trends found in various parts of the United States and Canada.

Despite these differences, there are some clothing items that are almost universally considered to be unacceptable within a business environment. Such items include:

  • Revealing clothing that exposes too much skin or undergarments
  • Clothing with political or inappropriate and/or offensive logos or text
  • Clothing with holes, such as ripped jeans
  • Swimwear and sleepwear
  • Flip-flops

And most importantly, these guidelines must be communicated regularly to your employees—including sample photos of each.

Rethinking Office Dress Codes in a Post-Pandemic Work Setting

As was mentioned, casual dress codes are not for everyone. However, if there is one thing that the pandemic taught us, it’s to be flexible and adaptable. As we navigate the ongoing paradigm shift and easing into a post-pandemic “normal,” HR and business leaders would do well to be more open to change without, of course, losing sight of what is important with and for their business.

In our 22nd year of business, we at The QualiFind Group know very well how important it is to be flexible and adaptable to trends and shifting customer / employee needs. Our two plus decades’ experience in the professional headhunting and recruitment industry has made us witness to many trends that have come and gone. Market forces often decide which trends disappear and which trends become the new normal. That’s why we approach every client recruiting assignment as an opportunity to tailor our service to create a solution that best meets their needs in the moment.

If you are in need of recruitment support, The QualiFind Group is your go-to-resource. We have dedicated recruiting and research staff across the United States, Mexico, Canada Chile, and Brazil. We also accommodate clients need for talent within the EMEA and APAC regions through our partnership with IRC Global Search Partners.

Get in touch with us at https://www.qualifindgroup.com/en/contact/ to get started!

About the author…

Left to right: Warren Carter – The ExeQfind Group and Carlos Acosta – The QualiFind Group.

Warren Carter is the founder of professional recruitment practice – The QualiFind Group and the retained executive search practice – The ExeQfind Group. Warren leads The ExeQfind Group while his partner-in-the-firm Carlos Acosta leads – The QualiFind Group. Both practices have deep experience in recruitment and retention within the segments they serve and as such are on the forefront of changes in trends that impact the workplace and the effective leadership of it.

Warren is based in Atlanta, Georgia and leverages more than 25 years of headhunting and executive search experience globally in service to the firm’s clients.

For further information regarding professional and technical recruitment from specialist to managerial level, contact Carlos Acosta at 619-240-2638 or cacosta@qualifindgroup.com

For information regarding executive search support from the mid-management to C-suite level, contact Warren Carter at 770-375-0784 or wcarter@exeqfindgroup.com