What’s the future of the office dress code?

After more than a year of wearing whatever was comfortable while working from home, how should employers rethink the office dress code as employees return in person?
Feature Office Dress Code Panel

Many professionals who spent the bulk of 2020 working from home have already returned to the office, at least part time. But as more companies require their workers to return to in-person work, the relaxed atmosphere that many employees have been enjoying at half-empty offices may soon be a thing of the past.

While some stalwarts insisted on keeping up appearances even while working from home, going so far as to get dressed up every day, virtual meetings or not, plenty of other professionals abandoned their weekday business attire for athleticwear, T-shirts, loose dresses, and slippers — and quickly realized they didn’t miss dressing up.

With a return to the office, some of those professionals may not be too eager to give up their more casual attire, especially if some of their co-workers will continue to work remotely, or if they aren’t typically client-facing. Organizations may want to consider proactively reevaluating the company dress code as a result to see if offering more a flexible policy makes sense.

Betty Hurd2

Betty Hurd, Madison College fashion marketing instructor and retail expert

“The world is always changing and [we] need to be more flexible to the changing world of business and world events that quickly alter the course of life,” says Madison College fashion marketing instructor and retail expert Betty Hurd. “We live in a world that uses a mix of online, face to face, and offline in our business more and more every day. Being inclusive and respectful is very important.

“Company dress codes say a lot about their culture,” she adds. “Companies should look at what the dress codes are for their organization to see if the expectations do meet/do not meet the needs of the business today and for the future and make changes accordingly both physical and emotional.”

The kind of business a company does and the makeup of its stuff has often dictated the elements of its dress code policy in the past. Older generations, for example, typically still have a more traditional view on what constitutes “professional” attire, while younger generations wouldn’t blink at someone arriving for a business meeting in jeans and an untucked shirt. However, even the most relaxed company culture needs to be cognizant of the impression one’s appearance makes on those you do business with.

“There certainly is a difference in how different groups view dress code,” notes Hurd. “How you dress or expect people to dress sends the message of your interpretation of the world around you. As our world has become more globally connected, we are able to work more with others around the globe more than ever. Being aware and mindful of how others interpret dress code will offer new discussions and opportunities to assess what is considered appropriate for each organization.”

Hurd suggests companies utilize focus groups, employee leaders, and anonymous methods of getting feedback and ideas from all levels of the organization on the best approach to dress codes moving forward. Businesses, she says, have an image that is important to them in building their relationships internal and external. “Each organization could certainly take this time to reassess what the image is now and how relooking at more flexible dress codes fit.”

Ultimately though, shouldn’t business leaders be able to treat professionals like adults who will exercise good judgement and not micromanage what they wear every day? Employees are given discretion to do their jobs and leaders trust that they’ll do what’s appropriate, so is dictating how workers dress really something the employer needs to be in the business of?

Hurd says that’s a great question. “Each organization needs to really review how it addresses the individual and the company. Policies and procedures should help build an organization.”

Hurd points to the following dos and don’ts of rolling out an office dress code from recruiterbox:

  • One size doesn’t always fit all. You can have a policy that has different requirements for different teams. Employees who interact with customers can have more stringent dress requirements than those who work behind the scenes.
  • What do your employees think? Ask for input from the people who will be affected most by the new dress code. For instance, if you’re introducing requirements for your sales team, ask them what their typical customer wears so you can create a policy that makes sense.
  • Ambiguous language does no good. What’s the difference between “business casual” and “casual?” Don’t leave it up to your employees to decide. Give specific examples of what types of attire are acceptable.
  • Know the latest fashion trends. Make sure the examples you provide don’t consist of outdated fashion. Strive to create a policy that allows employees to be stylish so they feel like they look good at work.
  • Put it on paper. Your dress code policy should be clearly explained and documented in your employee handbook. Make sure it’s explained to new hires so they come in properly dressed on their first day.
  • Explain the consequences. Clearly explaining your dress code also means outlining the consequences for violations. Make sure they’re also included in your employee handbook.
  • A flexible policy is often the best approach. Uniforms offer consistency but should only be introduced if needed. Try to implement a policy that sets a standard but still gives your employees some freedom to choose what they wear each day.

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