The Evolution of Workplace Dress and How it Affects Company Culture

by Elizabeth Dukes on February 2, 2016
The Next Generation of IWMS: iXMS

If you’ve been active in the business world over the last twenty years, you’ve had a front row seat for viewing (and experiencing) the workplace transformation. We’ve seen computers replace typewriters and cubicles replace individual offices. Technological developments have fueled changes in workplace culture in ways we never dreamed imaginable, making way for more open and collaborative spaces and encouraging an environment where workers are comfortable and confident. Businesses now embrace a more flexible and transparent environment, empowering their employees to make their own decisions regarding how, when, and where they work. Workplace attire has evolved with these changes, yet is still up for debate between many in upper management positions.

So, how has workplace dress changed over the last twenty to thirty years? Does it set the tone for how business is conducted? And how much does it really affect the bottom line?

Changes in Workplace Dress

Thirty, and even twenty, years ago workplace attire wasn’t even a discussion. Men came to work in a suit and tie and women wore dresses and skirts. Everyone “dressed for success” regardless of what position in the company they held or who they interacted with daily. This was also a time when each individual sat at their desk all day and connecting with co-workers was reserved for lunch breaks. My how things have changed!iStock_000056235532_Large.jpg

Advances in technology have allowed us to get out from behind our desks and into the conference rooms, where colleagues can interact and collaborate, sometimes on opposite ends of the country. Organizations are tearing down walls, literally and figuratively, encouraging their workforce to make connections, feed off each other, and, ultimately, learn from each other. Our workforce is a blend of people from all cultural backgrounds, beliefs, and generations, offering us a unique opportunity to explore things from every angle. This synergy, when embraced, enriches our lives both professionally and personally, molding ourselves into the very best we can be.

These changes have brought about differing views when it comes to workplace dress code. Many executives were brought up with the mindset that you have to “look the part” and that the part meant a suit and tie. But as the workplace evolved, businesses began implementing casual Friday – an opportunity for employees to dress down a little, while still maintaining an air of professionalism. Many enterprises realized a boost in workforce attitude when individuals when given a little leeway regarding their own dress code decisions. And with a boost in attitude, comes an increase in productivity. As management realized these positive changes, many have implemented a more business casual dress code. Is this, however, a viable option for all companies? And does it really evoke positivity company-wide?

Empowering Your Workforce

Society as a whole is more casual these days. Go to the grocery store at any given time and you will see people in their slippers, bathing suits, and even pajamas. While we have come to accept this when out running errands, are we really judged in the workplace iStock_000065139913_Large.jpgbased on our attire? The simple answer is “yes.” If you’re in a customer facing role, it’s important to take a close look at your client base, services you offer, and the level of professionalism that’s expected. You wouldn’t want your doctor showing up for an appointment in flip flops and a t-shirt would you? You expect them to be well groomed and dressed to a certain level. But if your interactions are primarily over the phone, email, or video conferencing, the clothes the person on the other end is dressed in make no difference to you. It does, however, affect THEIR attitude.

Consider the definition of “employee empowerment;” “a philosophy that allows people to make decisions about their work, within certain broad guidelines. True employee empowerment comes from both management and employees working in unison to create a positive company culture. If you give your employees the freedom of choice, they will in turn will feel they have more control over their environment, which is proven to increase productivity and workplace satisfaction. 

We spend a large portion of our day at work, so it makes sense that we would want the office to feel a little like home. For many professionals, workplace dress is the first tool in building that culture. By offering choices, businesses are able to work towards the flexible, collaborative, and comfortable environment their workforce needs.

Part of building this progressive workplace culture, however, is understanding there is a time and place for everything. If you are considering a change in dress code, make sure you communicate clear guidelines. If you feel flip flops are crossing the line, express this in writing. It is human nature to want to push the envelope a little bit and, over time, there are some employees who will. Overall, however, you should be able to trust in your workforce to do the right thing; to understand what their calendar looks like each day and dress accordingly.

Businesses have experienced unique changes over the last decade. Technology offers us access to real-time information with the click of a button. The office has shifted from a stuffy, quiet environment to an open, collaborative workspace. And the boundaries of space and time have been broken down. It only makes sense that workplace dress would follow suit. Like all other business tools, it is up to management to really understand what the company is about, what culture they want to convey to both employees and clients, and where employee dress fits into the picture.

What dress code has your company implemented and how has it changed the overall attitude of your workforce?


Elizabeth Dukes

Elizabeth Dukes' pieces highlight the valuable role of the real estate and facility managers play in their organizations. Prior to iOFFICE, Elizabeth was in sales for large facility and office service outsourcing firm.

Capterra Ratings: ★★★★★ 4.5/5