Will we ever go back to business casual?

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Reportshe spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

As many of the workplaces that converted to work from home last year begin making plans to bring people back on site, not everyone is thrilled about getting dressed up for the office again. While moving back toward something like normalcy is a welcome sign, one of the few bright spots of the past year has been the ability to work in pajamas, sweats, or yoga pants—and many workers don’t want to go back to shoes and pants with zippers.

Judging from my inbox, this person who wrote to me speaking for legions:

I spend all day on Zoom calls, and my standard WFH uniform is a comfortable T-shirt or sweatshirt, leggings, fuzzy socks, and slippers. Luckily my company was already very casual, so the T-shirt/sweatshirt on Zoom has never been a big deal. Whenever we go back to the office, I’m going to have a hard time adjusting to wearing jeans and real shoes again.

“Hard pants”—jeans, trousers, and other bottoms without elastic waistbands and stretchy fabrics—are a particular point of contention, as this person notes:

I’m not happy about the prospect of putting on “hard pants” every day. It’s clear now that we are just as productive in sweatpants as we are in suits (not like that’s a big surprise) so I don’t know why we have to revert back to the old rules of dressing for work. If anything, I’m probably MORE productive when I’m comfortable … which for me means soft pants, a T-shirt, no bra, and no shoes. But that’s probably not going to fly and even if my office did decide to allow it, I doubt I’d be comfortable being around my colleagues in-person like that anyway. Somehow it’s different when we’re on Zoom.

Perhaps even more maligned than hard pants, after a year of more relaxed dress, are bras. Many women joyfully cast off bras over the past year and aren’t thrilled about returning to wearing them regularly again, as this annoyed individual wrote to me:

I have not worn a bra (except for exercise) for more than 10 months, and I don’t ever want to again if I don’t have to. My boobs are free! It is amazing! Their underwire prisons have been relegated to the back of my closet and I do! not! want! to retrieve them. … This year has shown me that life is too short to be uncomfortable for 40 hours a week, and I am most comfortable without a bra. … Do I have to wear a bra when I go back to the office?

And for many women, it’s not just bras—it’s also all the work that goes into hair and makeup, which many people didn’t bother with during the pandemic:

Staying home all the time has really been thrown into high relief how much *work* it is to go out into the world and perform appropriate femininity. I’m resentful of the fact that men don’t have to do this. I get that styling my hair every morning, wearing makeup, and trying to choose attractive clothes are choices that I don’t *have* to make, but I’ve done it all my life and it’s really hard to get past the internalized expectations for how I need to look to be in public (plus my work requires business formal semi-regularly so there are certain expectations).

So where do offices stand on all this? Some are indeed changing their dress codes as they begin reopening and bringing people back:

Our office was definitely business causal (slacks Monday-Thursday with collared shirts or a nice top or a dress/skirt and jeans allowed on Friday), but my company has officially updated our dress code to “dress for your day.” Basically, if you’re meeting clients, doing something outward facing, etc., you still need to wear slacks and a nice shirt, but if your day is internal stuff, you’re free to wear jeans and a basic T, etc. So we still can’t wear sweats or leggings (which, fair), but we can be a lot more casual now. I like it.

Even offices with traditionally conservative dress codes are making the switch:

I work in a very traditional style of office with lots of layers of management and a long-standing tradition of business-to-business-casual dress. Our top brass have been jackets-and-ties type of people for 20+ years, but the official dress code was business casual. There was no real reason for it, as we almost never interact in person with the population we serve or any type of clientele. We had casual Fridays and work still got done, of course!

I am delighted to say that our leadership agreed to “experiment” with casual dress code as we start slowly returning to the office. Personally, I’m pleased, because after the pandemic, I definitely don’t fit into my work trousers anymore!

That’s not true everywhere, of course. Some offices are going right back to the pre-pandemic dress code expectations, to the dismay of their employees:

Our office took the head-on approach. They made it clear that we are reverting to our previous dress code and there will be no discussion, no debate, no “oops, forgot/wasn’t sure/thought maybe…” We’ve been told very clearly, “The dress code for each office will return to the pre-COVID regulations.” So it was fun while it lasted, but like all good things it came to an end.

But why shouldn’t offices take this opportunity to rethink their dress codes? Work is not going to come to a standstill just because people are in casual clothes. Yes, there are some industries where clients expect to see employees in polished, formal suits—but in most fields, people perform just as well, if not better, when they’re wearing things they’re comfortable in. It’s unlikely that most offices will embrace sweats and workout clothes any time soon, even for jobs that aren’t public-facing—but can any sweatpants-averse manager explain why? This would be a logical moment for employers to reassess what dress code requirements truly make sense and are necessary for the work versus what’s rooted in outdated, and sometimes sexist, ideas of professionalism. After the past year, it’s going to be a lot harder to argue that work truly requires blazers, high heels, or collared shirts.

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