Does dress code matter anymore in a post pandemic workplace?

Ruth Cornish, co-founder and director of HRi, considers how the pandemic has impacted traditional dress codes in UK workplaces

With many of us having worked from home for well over a year now, often dare I say it, in joggers, I have started to wonder, does dress code even matter in the workplace these days? And with the UK in the midst of a heatwave, what should we all be wearing as we head back into the office now that Freedom Day has come and gone?

Do we really need to go back to the office suited and booted, or can we get away with our joggers and a hoodie for ever more? What is the middle ground?

We did a quick poll on this, and quite frankly the results were as varied as most people’s office attire. 34% respondents believed that what you wear does indeed matter in the workplace, 24% expressed that office attire doesn’t matter and that the key was just doing a good job, whist 43% respondents suggested it was a combination of the two.

Whilst these results weren’t necessarily concrete either way, what they do tell me is that we are definitely entering a new normal when it comes to office attire as well as our ways of working, because had I done this poll two years ago, I am confident the results would have been quite different. The results really got me thinking, 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?

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 as long as I can remember, 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 bucking this 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. For instance, have you ever seen a trouser suit in a fintech environment? Or a suit dress in a consumer PR agency?

As part of my poll, I also went out and asked some industry professionals their stance on this too. I asked them does dress code really matter post pandemic. Here’s what they said.

Lee McClane, Sales Manager, Asset Finance:

“Let’s get one thing straight, it’s a fallacy that business attire ever looked smart. It rarely ever looks smart. Men wearing ill-fitting suits with awful tie-shirt-shoe combinations and women dressed like a cross between Rosa Klebb and Cathy Bates from Misery. Business attire has always been the C or D list of clothing expenditure for most people. And it shows. The corporate tie and suit stems from an era when suits were hand tailored to fit. And people didn’t have a two hour commute on overcrowded public transport. We are a long way from those tailored days of men’s and woman’s business finery. Jeans and Converse or whatever blows your hair back will suffice. 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.”

Patty Collins, Deputy Director, U.S. Government Publishing Office:

“Like many answers, it depends. When I was an on-site consultant, I dressed in a way that was similar to my client and yes something that was acceptable for one client was not necessarily so with another. I also think it is important to stay clear of anything that can be viewed as offensive or divisive. I don’t mean wearing your favourite sports team jersey, I mean T-shirts, hats or pins with slogans. Finally, what you are wearing shouldn’t detract from who you are or what you are doing.”

Lauren Lefkowitz, Career and Mindset Coach for Mid-Career Professionals Who Want More From Life Than Work:

“I just don’t see the value in continuing to put so much pressure on what we wear to work. It’s exhausting. I think we can all be professional in whatever clothing makes us comfortable and covers up the parts of our bodies that people get upset about showing. That said, I know how to dress for different settings to blend in to social norms. With me, I just want you to show up as you are and feel comfortable being who you are.”

Allyson Kellas, UK Employee & Industrial Relations Advisor, Shell:

“I work in a ‘business dress’, but rarely suits, environment. Smart casual is absolutely fine depending on your role. Basically, dress for your day. Fridays are casual, I’d say people wear what they would for lunch in a decent bar. Casual, sometimes a little dressy, not scruffy. I think that will remain.”

Jodi Goldman, Personal Impact Coach, Speaker, Women in Leadership Mentor:

“I think a lot of old fashioned professional “rules” around dress codes should and have changed, forever. But I do think how we dress matters, well actually I know it does. It matters for how we’re seen, the impression we make on others, the associations and perceptions they have of us, and it’s an opportunity for people to get a sense of who we are and what we stand for….and, I know that what we wear matters for how we see and feel about ourselves. We think, act, feel, and behave differently depending on what we wear. I never say anyone has to wear xyz to look “professional” because there’s no one professional anymore….but…I say (and always will say) it’s important to show up to your life and to look and feel good.”

Ally Jones, Independent Executive Leadership Coach

“I really don’t get the whole ‘business casual’. We’re all humans and when we’re not at work we wear sensible clothes that show off our personalities. Why should people dress any differently at work? We’re still just people communicating with each other. I don’t respect someone more because they’ve chosen to wear a suit. My perception of someone at work is based on two things: their behaviour and their performance. My view… wear whatever you’re comfortable with as long as it’s unlikely to offend or upset someone.”

Kurt Beard, Operations Coordinator, GadellNet Consulting Services

“Clothing is about culture. I just don’t think people are impressed by suits anymore and I believe that in most situations they are seen as stuffy and outdated. People are more impressed with a culture that communicates today’s heat index is 110 so we are wearing shorts and comfortable clothes. When I’ve run offices with super casual dress codes, it is frequently mentioned by clients and vendors that they are jealous. That said there are times that require dressing up, but not many.”

Melanie E Denyer, MSc Applied AI and Data Analytics, Ethical data practitioner and Strategic analyst

“There are more important things in life. Wheelchair users who struggle to find adapted garments that will also look ‘smart’ or ‘professional’, neurodivergent people who have sensory issues with different fabrics and fastenings, and so on. Other groups with protected characteristics may feel the same way as me. The issue of women having to wear heels in corporate dress codes is one that comes to mind, or women with natural Afro hair being told to tame it. If lockdown has proved anything, it’s that you can wear what you like when you’re off Zoom and it doesn’t in the least change how well you do your job.”

Denise Pickburn, Owner of Happy Minds Hypnotherapy, The Anxiety Angel & Hypno-Trim.

“Personally, I’d like to think that the ‘old days’ of office attire were over. The world has moved on. Unless you are customer facing and your organisation needs you to present a certain image to customers then what does it matter what you actually wear as long as you get the job done?”

 

Well, there you have it. Based on the crowdsourced wisdom above, it feels like we are at a turning point with our business attire and it’s about time too.

One thing is for sure though, 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. Only this way will the real you shine out.