Corporate cultures are shifting, and the workplace uniform with them. The 1980s saw the beginning of the “casual Friday” movement, which allowed employees to shed the ties and high heels once a week for a more comfortable look. That has slowly given way to a dress-down-every-day trend in many offices. When you get a dress code like Google’s – which, famously, is “you must wear clothes” — you know things have changed.
Studies show it, too. Research by OfficeTeam, for instance, revealed that half of senior managers interviewed believe employees dress less formally than they did five years ago. And over 58 percent of staff surveyed said they prefer to work in a company with a business casual or casual dress code, or no dress code at all.
Sweatpants for Creativity?
Proponents of dressing down at work claim it leads to greater creative inspiration and even friendship. Productivity expert and author Chris Bailey, for instance, did an experiment on how different styles of dress affected his work style. He discovered that wearing casual clothes made him more relaxed, which, in turn, made him much more productive at creative tasks, like writing.
Academic researchers in the U.S. found out that dressing comfortably helped employees focus better on concrete tasks (think coding or project planning) as opposed to abstract ones. It also fostered camaraderie among co-workers because everyone dressed in the way they would if hanging out socially.
Another point in favor of the leisure look: some companies see casual dress codes as a workplace perk that makes them more attractive to Millennial employees (aka, the “hoodie” generation). That seems to be Google’s line of thinking.
Staff at some organizations put pressure on management to lighten up the dress guidelines, too. “We conduct quarterly pulse surveys of our employees, and attire has been a consistent theme,” says Cydney Koukol, Chief Communication Officer at Talent Plus, a leading provider of talent assessment services in the U.S. and Asia-Pacific. In response to employees wanting more casual dress days, Talent Plus instituted a business denim policy, which allows them to wear clothing that is “north of what you would wear to work out” on certain days. Translation: jeans, yes; tank tops and flip flops, no.
Clothing and Attitude
While we are clearly seeing a trend to dressing down at work, it is also apparent that trends can get a little out of hand. In the OfficeTeam survey, nearly half of managers felt that “too casual” attire was the most common dress code violation, and over 30 percent of managers felt that showing too much skin was the biggest problem.
On top of this, it is not clear that dressing down really makes employees better at what they do. In fact, wearing more professional garb can, in some cases, make people perform at a higher level.
In a study at the Yale School of Management, men wearing suits were considerably more successful in sales negotiations than those wearing sweatpants and t-shirts. The conclusion was that the negotiation partner saw these men as dominant and confident, and was more likely to back down. And other research revealed that people made fewer mistakes on demanding tasks when wearing a white lab coat.
Koukol claims it is “an attitude rather than a behavior that changes when a person is dressed professionally.” In her experience, top performing employees are self-directed, and they know how to dress in a way that makes them most successful in their work.
All about the Industry
Truth is, there is no consensus on whether dressing down at the office is better or worse for employee satisfaction and productivity. Industry still plays a big role. In the tech and startup sectors, the wear-what-you-want look prevails. In professional services industries, like legal, finance and business consulting, however, dressing up is and will be preferred, says Koukol. She points out that even entrepreneurs and startup leaders usually step up to professional attire when meeting legal or finance counterparts.
The best approach seems to be to set guidelines according to the norms of the industry but to make adjustments for different work situations. Like many customer-facing services firms, Talent Plus adopts the professional dress style of it clients most of the time. But guidelines are relaxed, for example, when the weather is extra hot to allow colleagues to go “summer casual,” which includes golf shorts. On days when its wellness team hosts yoga and meditation classes, associates are encouraged to wear workout attire.
Koukol stresses that dressing for work is about fostering mutual respect between parties — businesses and customers, or colleagues. That can be accomplished in suits or sandals, depending on your workplace.
Kate Rodriguez is a freelance marketing copywriter based in Munich. She has over 20 years of professional experience in public and private organizations. A former international trade analyst for the U.S. government, she also worked as a university career coach, specializing in international career search. Most recently, she was employed at Experteer as a customer service agent and online marketing manager.