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Is it time to update your Office Dress Code policy?

Over the years as with most practices related to the office, the dress code has seen a drastic change in the past few decades. And even today, this is clearly one topic that can bring a generation of workers together either in consent or dissent. In fact, it was just a few years back in 2017, House Speaker Paul Ryan had to ask a top House chamber official to “modernize” a centuries-old dress code rule after controversy ensued when a female reporter was denied entry into the Speaker’s Lobby for having bare shoulders.

The fact that several countries including Japan (where just last year news reports emerged that women were being told not to wear glasses at work to avoid looking 'cold' and 'unfeminine') have grappled with such arcane dress code rules that vary for men and women has only added fuel to this fire of discontent.

But does ‘dressing up for success’, as most pundits claim is a must, really make a difference. In this case, statistics seem to present quite a mixed picture. An article published in the Scientific American found that formally dressed subjects performed better in cognitive tests. However, on the flip side, the Science of Us talked about how people felt that those who deviate from the norm are considered to be powerful enough to not be affected by their disregard of rules.

This study’s based on Harvard Business School research that analyzed students’ opinions of college professors:

The authors described two male college professors—one clean-shaven and dressed in a suit, the other with a beard and a T-shirt—and asked college students to rate each man’s skills as a teacher and researcher. True to what the authors had observed in their field study, the students thought more highly of the casual professor—but only when the descriptions mentioned that the professors worked at prestigious universities with formal dress codes. In other words, it wasn’t the casual dress itself that inspired more confidence; it was the nonconformist attitude that the casual outfit signified—which, in turn, is seen as a ‘reflection of high levels of autonomy and control.’

So, are casual dress codes in to stay?

A study conducted by Randstad US found that 33 percent of employees prefer an informal dress code to an extra $5K in salary. The findings not only revealed casual dress appears to be the new norm in most workplaces, but a third of respondents are completely resistant to formal workwear altogether. In fact, 33 percent said they’d quit their job (or turn down a job offer) if they were required to follow a conservative dress code. The Society for Human Resource Management 2018 benefits report (SHRM) also says the same with their findings. The most common practice is to allow employees to “dress down” one day per week, up six percentage points since 2014 (to 62%) and three percentage points since 2017. One-half (50%) of organizations reported allowing casual dress every day, up six percentage points since 2017 and 18 percentage points since 2014; about one-third (34%) of organizations offer this perk on a seasonal basis, up seven percentage points since 2017 and 15 percentage points since 2014.

Further, of 2,000 UK employees surveyed, 61% said the dress code had no positive impact on their productivity, while 45% said they’d be more productive wearing what they felt most comfortable in.

This trend is also supported by Goldman Sachs’ decision in 2017 when they allowed tech staffers to wear ‘totally casual clothing’. They went a step ahead in 2019 and relaxed the dress code company-wide for their 36,000 employees. In the email from CEO David Solomon, CFO Stephen Scherr, and COO John Waldron instructed employees to dress “in a manner that is consistent” with clients’ expectations.

Despite all the bad press dress codes that have received over the years, it is not all bad. In most offices, management should take the decision to take a more informed decision while keeping in mind any specific business needs or safety concerns. Trusting your employees to take that decision will help foster an empowering and engaging work environment.

What lies ahead

The future seems to be about a casual blend of formal and informal styles that will make this decade all it's own. What started in the 1950s with gray flannel suits for men and slim-fitting tweed suits for women-led to casual Fridays and business casuals becoming more common in the 1990s. More relaxed dress policies are increasingly becoming common with examples like Mark Zuckerberg who sports his trademark dark jeans, plain grey t-shirt or Steve Jobs’ black mock-turtleneck and jeans. 

Being in the public eye is now the norm for organizations as well as individuals. Employers need to keep this in mind while designing a workplace dress code as they strive to ensure that their organizational values and the professional image would be reflected in how their employees are perceived.

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