Across the workforce, major shifts are affecting the way Americans view their employee autonomy, individuality, and choices.
Business owners and managers are reevaluating their employee management policies and expectations, particularly as retaining and attracting talent is now a major challenge.
Perks like sign-on bonuses, professional development programs, and hybrid working arrangements have become common offerings that prioritize employee interests and points of view. But in addition to boosting benefits, some companies are loosening policies and letting go of standards that were once longstanding conventions.
A prime example is the office dress code. After many months of working from home in the comfort of sweatpants and slippers, a lot of workers are not eager to go back to button-downs, blazers and other and more rigid work dress essentials.
Considering the slide from the stringent office wear of post-war U.S. corporate culture, to the casual Friday allowances of the late 20th century, to the jeans and t-shirts of the digital age, office dress has changed a lot over the decades.
Work Outfits Shift From Pressed Suits To Business Casual Sneakers
Whether they’re embraced or loathed, work dress and appearance policies have always served a purpose for the organization or employer, as well as the employees representing themselves. Based on the industry, this may have meant a work uniform or protective equipment that was necessary to complete the job.
In the white-collar world, however, polished and professional fashion was the starting standard.
This was usually embodied by suits, slacks, pencil skirts, blouses, and cardigans in line with midcentury tidiness and predictability. In addition to clothing, many companies maintained policies that defined appropriate hairstyles, cosmetic use, and hygiene routines.
While there are still companies that retain these very strict professional dress codes, gradually policies were relaxed with shifts in company culture and a more diverse workplace. Casual work clothes on Fridays and during the summer months were slowly adopted through the late 20th century.
This led to daily business casual standards, which loosened rules but retained many of the fashion staples deemed “office-appropriate”.
Eventually business casual lost the business qualifier when enterprising CEOs and successful startup owners—especially in the tech industry—began wearing jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts as their daily work attire.
Little by little, their employees followed suit. In general, the fashion industry has been eager to accommodate this evolution with designs that offered more comfort but retained some professionalism and sophistication.
However, relaxed work dress didn’t become universal. Finance, legal, government, and other more conventional sectors have kept stricter professional dress codes. And even in the same industry, definitions of business casual and office-appropriate will vary greatly from one company to another.
This isn’t always easy to navigate for the employees who must comply, nor is it for the managers who must set and maintain company-specific dress codes.
Navigating Modern Office Dress Policies
Whether it’s casual or conservative, office wear remains a powerful non-verbal communication method. From the worker’s perspective, work outfits can be used to indicate their commitment to a role, their desired position within an organization, and the individual identity and values they bring with them.
Comfort and pragmatism are increasingly prioritized but outward appearances still matter in the vast majority of professional environments.
Whether returning to the office after Covid-19 shutdowns or applying for a new job, workers need to account for this. Companies still concern themselves with the appearance of their employees in the vast majority of sectors.
Their workers are an extension of their own value and brand, which is why office wear policies are still important with front-facing employees and representatives that meet directly with clients.
But, organizations that strive to build and maintain specific impressions need to ensure their employees are adequately compensated to realize them. Asking workers who are making a moderate wage to attend work in designer, dry-clean-only suits does require a certain level of income and employers need to keep that in mind.
To balance all of these needs, human resource professionals and employee managers must also ensure that individual rights are accounted for, but also that personal choices do not become a disruption or health and safety issue.
They must also stay informed on changing trends and requirements affecting their industry and the workforce at large. Failing to keep up with work dress trends and adjusting their policies could mean a tougher time attracting talent and hurting their company’s reputation.