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Business casual vs formal traditional: How does your workplace attire impact productivity?

The tried and tested combination of the suit and tie was once an office style staple. Just a few decades ago, employees were expected to dress in formal attire for work regardless of whether the role was client facing – however, this has changed in recent years. Companies tend to allow for a more ‘business casual’ dress code nowadays and the suit and tie has been replaced with a blazer and jeans. But does the way we dress actually have an impact on our productivity at work?

Formal or casual?

We can define the business casual style as being more relaxed than the traditional suit and tie combination whilst still giving the impression of formality. Business casual for a man could be a mens white shirt with no tie, smart black trousers and loafer style shoes. For women it could be a smart blouse with cropped, tailored trousers and flat shoes. It’s thought that the influx of younger workers had something to do with the rising trend towards business casual in the workplace. It seems as though this age group is more protective over identity and style of dress and are opposed to being told what to wear.

According to data, one in ten young people have considered seeking other employment due to strict rules about office wear. Older employees, however, do not share the same strong views. Only 7% of those aged 55 and over said that they would think about leaving their employment because of the dress code. Compare this to 17% of 18-24s and it’s clear to see a divide. It might depend on which sector you operate in as to how your staff feel about uniform. Those working in the energy sector (32%), science and pharma sector (31%) and IT sector (29%) are most likely to leave their role due to dress code requirements, one study discovered.

But should companies relax their dress codes to boost worker satisfaction? Quite possibly. Employers are aware of how high staff turnover can have great cost and productivity implications. Costs incur during the recruitment process as the position is advertised and time is spent by employers interviewing and selecting candidates. Having a dress code may deter candidates too — 61% of people looking for a new job in 2017 said that they’d have a negative perception of any company that enforced a dress code. Productivity also takes a hit, as often a current employee has to spend time training the new starter or letting them shadow their day-to-day activities — this can prevent existing workers from working to their maximum capacity.

The growth and popularity of creative industries may have something to do with the changing dress codes. In fact, between 2010 and 2016, the creative industries sub sectors (i.e advertising, film and TV) grew their economic contribution by 44.8%. Dress code is often less strict in these companies, as employees are encouraged to express their ‘creative flair’.

Style and productivity

There appears to be a direct link between how we conduct ourselves at work and what we wear. In one study, subjects were presented with a white coat and told different things. The participants that were told it was a doctor’s coat, felt more confident in accomplishing tasks compared to those that were told they were wearing a painter’s coat. Other research shows that wearing more formal clothing can make people think more broadly.

Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is known for his more casual style of clothing. He says that dressing in this way gives him one less decision to make and allows him to focus on more important workplace decisions. A study by Stormline concluded that most UK workers would feel more productive and make extra effort to dress well if the strict rules on dress code were relaxed.

Perhaps companies should look towards giving their workers more freedom when it comes to what they can wear. Studies have shown that UK workers are at their most productive when they are given this option – they also make more effort appearance wise. Moreover, 78% of respondents to one survey said that they would still make an effort to dress well and wouldn’t blur the line between ‘work clothes’ and ‘non-work clothes’ if there weren’t any rules on what to wear.

Should companies enforce a dress code?

What works for one person may not work for another, however. It may depend on their role, too. First impressions still, and most likely will, always count. If employees are in a client-facing role, it’s important to look professional and approachable — they are effectively representing the business and should be making it look good.

Businesses could stand to gain from relaxing their dress code rules and instead asking employees how they would like to dress. This could be the best indicator of whether a uniform is best for the business or not. As we’ve seen, uniforms can affect behaviour at work and it is down to the individuals as to whether they work best following, or not adhering to, a dress code.

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