Does enforcing a strict dress code at work improve productivity?

The workplace attire rulebook has been rewritten over recent years. But what impact – if any – does allowing employees to dress more casually have on productivity?

For many business sectors, Dress down Fridays were the first step towards today’s more casual approach to business attire.

From suits to sweatshirts: how working wardrobes have changed

Dress down Fridays began in the 1940s in Hawaii, when workers in Honolulu started being allowed to wear brightly printed Aloha shirts.

Spotting a marketing opportunity for its new range of chinos, jeans manufacturer Levi’s then got involved – sending some 25,000 businesses “A Guide to Casual Business Wear” that helped set the tone for Dress down Fridays.

Now, casual workwear has become the norm in many sectors throughout the week.

Reasons for this include the rise of anti-corporate technology companies, as well as the trend for more people to work from home.

Key takeaways

  • Employers have been experimenting with casual dress codes since the 1940s
  • Casual wear is now the norm in many sectors

Dress codes: a help or a hindrance?

Clearly, there are some jobs that come with compelling health and safety reasons for wearing certain clothing.

But do you need to be dressed a particular way to perform well while sitting behind a desk?

Research suggests not. When fashion website Style Compare surveyed 2,000 UK adults recently, 61% said a dress code had no positive impact on their productivity, while 45% felt they’d be more productive wearing more comfortable clothes.

Regan McMillan, director of Stormline, said: “Businesses seem oddly keen on making their talent dress in specific, often very restrictive ways.

“Our research suggests that this attitude could actually be harming their ability to attract top talent.”

Key takeaways

  • Dress codes can discourage prospective employees
  • Dress codes must not be discriminatory

Dressing for your day: advice for employees

There’s little doubt that feeling comfortable helps you to focus on the task at hand.

But unless you work for a trendy tech start-up, older colleagues, in particular, will often expect a level of smartness – even if there is no formal dress code.

That’s why New York Times bestseller author Austin Kleon advises people to “dress for the job you want, not the one you have”.

Client-facing roles also often still require a level of formality.

Some people, for example, find it easier to get into work mode when they put on a ‘uniform’.

For others, wearing casual clothes makes them more focused.

Zuckerberg, for example, believes wearing hoodies every day gives him one less decision to make, allowing him to concentrate on important workplace tasks.

Key takeaways

  • Dressing smartly can help your career prospects
  • Clients often appreciate smart attire
  • Some people prefer smart dress, others casual

Casual wear – pros and cons

  • It’s popular – particularly with younger employees
  • It’s comfortable and allows people to express themselves (within reason)
  • It may cause distractions
  • It can be difficult to police – where do you draw the line? Ripped jeans? Nose rings?

Formal wear – pros and cons

  • It can give a good impression to senior colleagues and clients
  • It allows people to get into ‘work mode’
  • It is often less comfortable
  • It can seem out-dated
  • It is less popular with younger workers

In summary

The etiquette around workplace attire has changed a lot over recent years.

While smart dress can be a plus in situations such as client meetings, forcing employees to follow a strict dress code may have a negative impact on productivity and retention rates.

For more on workplace etiquette:

Jessica Bown is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor.

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