Workplace dress codes have evolved a great deal over the last 50 years. In the previous decade alone, many businesses have recognised a comfy employee is a more productive employee. This has relaxed the way many of us can now dress in a professional environment.

But is it a big deal? Dress code can often be an afterthought following on from a successful interview phase. You’re unlikely to turn down a job due to an enforced tie-wearing policy. But it’s what you’ll be wearing for 40 hours a week—that’s important for productivity and job satisfaction. Is there, then, any relevance to enforcing a dress code policy?

Modern dress codes

Modern business dress codes
Free-Photos / Pixabay

If you’re a business, your dress code has to start somewhere. An HR department is there to establish the right dress code at work and, for those of us not in HR, details like that from BrightHR make for an interesting read. It’s about understanding the corporate deliberation that goes into establishing how you’ll spend your days looking and feeling.

You’ll need to avoid dress code discrimination, consider health and safety issues, plus the “one size fits all” approach. It’s a complex issue and one a lot of people will have different opinions about.

For someone as entirely disinterred in fashion as I am, for instance, it still makes a difference knowing how I’ll need to dress for work. Comfort is subjective—I like the smart but casual approach, with business professional at a push (borderline formal, basically, but cut back enough to be more comfortable). Having worked in various businesses, I can claim to have felt most uncomfortable parading around in a shirt, tie, suit, and cleanly shaven. Jackets weren’t allowed on the back of chairs, coats had to go in lockers, and that level of red tape didn’t sit well with myself and a lot of colleagues.

From a corporate perspective, though, a boss doesn’t want his/her staff walking around the office wearing hotpants and a vest whilst unwashed and dribbling slightly. Professionalism begins when you get up in the morning and don your getup for the day, but the idea formal wear promotes a better working mindset is now being challenged. Ties are increasingly out, ripped jeans in.

Changing expectations

There’s been a marked shift in worker expectations over the last 20 years. The advent of the internet has brought with it millions of new jobs that don’t exactly demand high levels of aesthetic splendour.

Even some of the most corporate environments are starting to relax their dress codes. PwC UK (a professional services network with headquarters in London) is one major example. Gaenor Bagley, Head of People for the company, noted: “We’ve had a flexible approach to how our people dress for work in the UK for a number of years – it’s important that our people can be themselves at work and that we respect our clients and colleagues. We trust our people to use their judgement on what’s appropriate to wear.”

PwC still has its 11 tips to nail our dress code, which other businesses might find of interest (my favourite there is: “Men: all shoes must be worn with socks” – that one could be a real deal breaker in this era of flip-flops sporting employees).

Elsewhere, global HR company Peninsula has this outlook from Managing Director Peter Done: “Having a casual dress code which specifies acceptable clothing will reduce the risk of staff pushing the boundaries and wearing inappropriate clothing. This casual code may state that employees can wear jeans and t-shirts but should not wear, for example, flip-flops or sportswear.”

Clearly, the desire to push flip-flops out of the business world is a strong one. Despite this, it’s obvious businesses are now more eager than ever to keep their employees happy. What prompted such a change?

The rise of the creative community

Workplace dress code diversity
coffeebeanworks / Pixabay

Political publication The Atlantic has documented some of the weird dress code rules from recent history. My favourite anecdote about an anonymous 1990s company: “I worked in a Fortune 50 internationally known company, and I was based at the world headquarters in New York. Women were not allowed to wear pants. I witnessed an executive woman sent home in a blizzard because she wore pants that day—a day when about 50% of the people didn’t make it to work because of the blizzard.”

Such a decision would spark outrage now. One of the key influencers in such a change, asides from the ascendancy of women in the business world, has been the advent of the internet. It’s led to some major social upheavals.

Creative businesses have been instrumental in this. The likes of digital agencies and tech startups have shaken up workplace decorum (think Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodies and casual t-shirt—he’s the poster boy for a laidback dress code policy).

It’s helped to make formal dress codes look anachronistic—but this shift, briefly revolutionary, has now become the status quo. This can only influence more businesses, including those with a longstanding, traditional formal dress, as societal change leads to a more relaxed outlook.

We’re in an era of diverse workplaces, where we celebrate how an office can be crammed with workers from various destination around the globe. This brings with it the need to embrace differing cultures. It’s helped us all relax around each other a touch more than in the past, and it’s easier to celebrate diversity if you feel comfortable in what you’re wearing.

Business benefits

Employees have more choice than ever before. And greater flexibility. There are roles across the world waiting for eager staff to move to in an instant, meaning staff aren’t as restricted by nationality as with previous generations. Coupled with shifting public attitudes and it’s forcing businesses to loosen their levels of bureaucracy to create a more welcoming workplace. Do so and you have a better chance of securing the best talent.

Individuality is being encouraged, worker well-being pushed to the fore, and there are now more jobs that allow more people to slouch at a desk in a hoody (if that’s their preference).

Legally, businesses are perfectly within their rights to enforce a dress code policy, just be aware your workers will expect some leeway. Flip-flops may be out, but jeans could be a welcome tradeoff.

Listen to staff feedback, adapt where necessary, and set a positive dress code policy that helps define your culture. Dress code is as relevant as ever, but it now has the power to make your staff enjoy the working experience even more.

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