Is Casual Dress Making Us Work Harder?

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Is Casual Dress Making Us Work Harder?

Along with office ball pits and treehouse meeting rooms, hoodies and trainers are fast becoming a standard element of the modern workplace. While some industries still require suited and booted workers, an increasing number of companies, inspired by the likes of tech giants Apple and Google, are adopting a casual dress code in an effort to stimulate creativity and boost productivity. However, with work attire becoming another element blurring the lines between home and work life, we can’t help but wonder if casual dress is helping us switch on or keeping us switched off.

Apparel Adjustments

The impact casual dress has on productivity has divided opinions into two camps. While some argue that casually dressed employees are more comfortable and therefore more productive, others believe that casual dress relaxes work ethic and places employees in a weekend mind-set. Science has done little to dispel the uncertainty around appropriate business attire with some studies showing a 40% rise in productivity among casually dressed workers and others identifying productivity slumps in instances where dress codes have been relaxed.

In addition, some studies have reported findings that indicate casual dress has both positive and negative effects. One study by Joy V. Peluchette and Katherine Karl discovered that ‘respondents felt most authoritative, trustworthy, and competent when wearing formal business attire but friendliest when wearing casual or business casual attire.’ With little conclusive evidence, employers have no choice but to approach their workwear policies with a degree of flexibility in order to find the image solution that matches their brand ideals and motivates their employees.

Starbucks is one brand that has relaxed its workwear policy to meet the needs of its staff without compromising core brand values. Earlier this summer, the global coffee chain invited its employees to ‘shine as individuals while continuing to present a clean, neat and professional appearance.’ In addition to picking from a wider range of shirt colour and pattern options, certain hats now have the thumbs up from the Starbucks’ bosses; however, it is the change to the hair colour policy that is the most poignant as it responds to a petition of just under 15,000 signatures calling for Starbucks to allow employees to wear hair colours that ‘show their true selves’.

By placing its employees’ individuality at the heart of its dress code, Starbucks has gone some way to show it values and listens to its ‘partners’. However, the dress code still operates within guidelines and many items, including cowboy hats and hoodies, are not authorised for work. Cosimo LaPorta, executive vice president, U.S. Retail Store Operations, stated: ‘We want partners to be as proud of their look as they are when they tie on their green apron.’ While the effects of the more relaxed policy are yet to be seen, the focus on inspiring pride, rather than enabling comfort, is key – there’s no doubting the message that when a Starbucks barista puts on that famous green apron, they’re brand ambassadors whether they’re rainbow haired, sporting an impressive tattoo sleeve or wearing a funky t-shirt.

The iconic Starbucks green apron

The Uniform Approach

Starbucks may have implemented a more casual dress code but there’s no escaping the fact that the green apron remains a central part of its employees’ workwear. This uniform element clearly marks a distinction between work and leisure, but are uniforms better for business?

Dr. Karen Pine, professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and fashion psychologist, argues that uniforms can help people feel they fit in with their colleagues. ‘A dress code can act as a way of signalling belonging, of being part of the tribe.’ This notion of a ‘tribe’ and being part of something bigger than ourselves can help us improve our work performance according to psychologist Carolyn Mair who argues that our behaviour and dress is adapted to suit the context and social group we’re in.

Further evidence of the powerful symbolism of our clothes can be seen in the results of a US study exploring the effects of clothing on cognitive processes. The study, which was led by Adam D. Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, split participants into three control groups; the first group were asked to wear a doctor’s coat, the second group wore the same coat, but were told it was a painter’s coat, and the final group were asked to simply look at a doctor’s coat. Each group was then asked to look at two very similar pictures and spot four minor differences. The study found that the group wearing (what they believed to be) a doctor’s coat, displayed heightened attention by finding more differences between the images than the other two groups.

In addition to affecting our self-perception and behaviour, our clothing also has a huge impact on how others perceive and interact with us. For example, in one study an airline management company swapped its staff’s formal business suits for casual khakis and t-shirts. The results showed an astonishing decline in behaviour from both the airline staff and customers, with participants reporting a decline in the flight attendants professionalism as well as customers’ behaviour becoming less polite and respectful to staff compared to when they were dressed in their usual formal uniforms.

Measuring Up

On balance, there’s a strong argument supporting both sides of the casual/formal workwear debate. The complexity of these arguments reveals there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to choosing the right dress code to boost productivity. However, there is no doubt that a successful workwear policy is one that has considered the needs of both the business and workforce. Dr Pine argues that ‘people tend to work best in the type of clothes that go with the job, and that is determined by the nature of the work and by what their peers wear’. Pine’s observation highlights the crux of the workwear debate – whatever we wear, the behaviour we adopt is a product of company culture, industry attitudes and our own personal preferences.



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