Many articles have addressed the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had (and will continue to have) on professional firms and businesses. Most dramatically, the impacts were on workflow, the adoption of remote technologies, remote workers, more digital client interaction, streamlined logistics, and hybrid work models.
But along with the expansion of remote working, whether on a permanent or rotating basis, firms also need to be prepared for the evolution of their office dress codes.
After several months to a year of wearing pajamas or shorts or sweats all day (or being dressed for business above the waist, where the webcam can see), will workers readily swap their house slippers for business shoes again? And due to the pandemic’s effect of many of our waistlines, will our old work wardrobes still fit?
The Slow Evolution of Office Dress Codes
Business dress codes have endured a very slow evolution over the past several decades, especially in professional firms like the offices of accountants, engineers, and lawyers. In the distant past, these firms more resembled episodes of Mad Men, with male staff dressed in full suits and female staff in dresses. By the 1970s-1980s, smart dress pants for women became more acceptable, but, overall, attire was still on the business formal side—albeit with distinctive flair for the period with polyester blends and wide lapels and ties.
As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, many firms adopted “casual Fridays,” but the definition of casual varied greatly between firms and industries. By the 2000s, many firms adopted dress expectations that reflected their clients: If your clients wear suits, so do you. If your clients wear jeans, you do not...but a suit isn’t necessary. By the 2010s—with the exception of firms with high-end clients—business casual was the primary mode, and this could now include jeans for more suburban or rural firms, or those with blue collar clients.
Of course, exceptions to these policies always existed, depending on the personalities of a firm’s leaders, its clients, and its local geography: A firm in a small Texas town or a Colorado resort town would likely have far different expectations of attire than a Manhattan firm, regardless of the decade.
But then the pandemic hit, and most professionals reverted to weekend wear for many of their workdays.
The New COVID Business Casual
Dress codes of the future will continue to be a reflection of the personality of the firm, its partners, and its management style. That said, these dress codes will be highly variable by firm and region. Just as you tailor your technologies to match your workflow, your firm dress codes, whether official or not, will also be tailored to those factors.
Super casual is more acceptable. Regardless of where the firm is located or its clients, it seems that most of us have grown more accustomed to interacting with others in even the most casual of attire. Will sweats and slippers be acceptable in the office? Perhaps in some, perhaps on certain days of the week. Does it affect productivity negatively? As long as it doesn’t distract the employee or others, it shouldn’t impact workflow. Shorts, sandals, running shoes? Why not?
Firm image. As long as attire doesn’t affect productivity, the next or even equal concern is if the attire affects the image of the firm in the eyes of clients, prospects of other important audiences. If the employee in question does not have customer or client facing duties, or if their duties are all digital, does it really matter what they wear, as long as it is not distasteful? It shouldn’t.
Grooming. Most firms haven’t worried about the length of workers’ hair since the 1970s, but many still have at least unofficial expectations of grooming standards for men and women. Expectations on hair length and style as well as makeup can lead to long morning routines that many are also not looking forward to reviving, at least not every day.
I’m in favor of relaxing dress codes considerably. When workers are more comfortable and spend less of their day worrying about maintaining expectations that don’t impact their work, they will be more productive.
However, it’s good to be prepared. At a socially relaxed firm I worked at many years ago, we could wear almost anything on most workdays, but when certain clients were expected in-office, we upped our attire to the appropriate level. And we all kept a backup “business professional” (no tie) outfit ready in the office, for when unexpected client visits or events made such attire more appropriate.