Return to Office

Employees are bringing their comfy pants to the office

Fashion has changed over the last two years, but what’s still undetermined is how companies will develop future dress codes.
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The Office/NBC via Giphy

4 min read

If you’ve been working from home for the last two years, you probably swapped out your suits and work slacks for sweatpants and slippers a long time ago. And now, as more companies call employees back to the office, you may find yourself at a loss for what to wear. You’re not alone: In March, Google saw a huge uptick in searches related to “business casual outfits” and “casual work outfits.”

According to CBS News, workplace dress was already beginning to trend more casual; the pandemic just sped up the process. As the Great Return expands, employers are divided over what’s considered acceptable attire when employees are in the office.

How important are clothes anyway? Whether employees should be expected to wear suits, button-down shirts, or even skirts and dresses in an office setting depends on who you ask.

  • Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley loosened their dress codes before the pandemic.
  • A lawyer at a New York-based firm told Fast Company that employees there could wear denim without rips when they go back to the office as long as they wear business attire for client meetings.
  • Staffers on Capitol Hill, who are known for wearing ties and pencil skirts, have been opting for more casual attire like sweaters and even sneakers.

Another sign of changing times. Yahoo! Finance reporter Dave Briggs told Yahoo! Finance Live that companies need to adapt to what employees want to wear. “I think there are things we will never go back to,” Briggs said. “There may be certain companies out there that prefer suits. They’re going to be very few and far between. In particular with younger workers, I think there are some shifts that happened in the last couple years, and the formal dress is one I am happy to leave behind.”

The Wall Street Journal highlighted a conundrum facing employers: “Be too strict and you risk alienating people who weren’t thrilled to come back in the first place; be too lenient and the environment no longer feels professional.”

A professor’s take. Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said that given the mental health challenges that have arisen during the pandemic, employees are looking for things that provide them with continued comfort. She recommends leaders “err on the side of supporting more varieties of dress codes and more flexibility. We know autonomy is one of the big pillars for how people feel.”

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Porath also said that a 2021 study conducted by Columbia University suggests home attire and comfortable clothing can facilitate “increased authenticity and engagement.” Furthermore, a Zoom mullet-style (business on top, pajama party on the bottom) didn’t have a marked impact on employee work engagement compared to home attire, according to that same study.

Look to the skies. Porath says that if you want a good example of how relaxed dress codes haven’t made an impact, just look to the airlines. She says airlines like Southwest and Alaska Airlines have relaxed their employee dress codes, and she feels it has not had a negative impact on the airline’s customer service. “I don’t feel like I’m treated any less attentively, or respectfully…by Southwest or Alaska employees when they adopt a more relaxed dress code.”

And if all else fails, HR professionals can turn to HR-pro-turned-General Motors-CEO Mary Barra, who explained at a 2018 conference how she simplified the automaker’s dress code to two words: “dress appropriately.” When a high-ranking director pushed back against that succinct edict, fearing it gave workers too much latitude, she said that she stuck to her guns and urged the person to work it out with their employees. “What I realized is that you really need to make sure your managers are empowered—because if they cannot handle ‘dress appropriately,’ what other judgment decisions are they not making?” Barra told conference attendees, “And I realized that sometimes you can have a lot of policies and procedures that people will live down to.”—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.