Casual Clothing at Work: Does it Affect Productivity?
For as long as I have been working the debate has raged about whether staff should be allowed to wear casual clothing to work. In my experience there have been two sides to this camp – those that support the idea of allowing a relaxed dress code and those that are totally opposed to it. The two school of thoughts are:
Dress to impress school – this concept is that in the process of dressing formally for work, that people psychologically being prepared for work and that they will perform when they arrive due to this thought process. Dressing formally in a suit (and usually a tie) or a uniform will deliver better performance.
Dress casually school – this concept is that if a person is in a ‘back office’ area, without customer contact, then they in essence can wear anything that they like. The theory is that if the staff member is more comfortable that they will perform better. The doubters will say that casual attire equals casual performance.
My personal opinion is that it really doesn’t matter what people wear to work (formal or casual) as my experience shows that it makes no difference in back office/call centre environments.
With this debate about to rage within my workplace I thought I would scan the academic papers on this subject to see if there is any evidence for or against casual clothing affecting performance.
What the Academics are saying
The papers are fairly emphatic around this subject. Clothing attire makes no difference to a staff members performance or attendance at work. There is some suggestion that a non-regular ‘casual Friday’ can create some downturn in performance, but this is minor and insignificant (Hughes, p.2).
Clothing is used to define class status and rank within an organisation (Biecher etal, 1999) and in many businesses today you will see the managers in suits and the staff members in uniform to designate this rank difference. There is also research from 2000 suggested that managers thought that ‘continually relaxed dress leads to relaxed manners, relaxed morals and relaxed productivity’ (Hughes) however, this does not appear to the actual case (Cardon & Okoro, 2009) when put under research. The change in the thought processes around casual verses formal clothing can be traced back to the 1980s with the egalitarian movement that encourage people into the ideas of team work and empowerment. The idea was to eliminate class distinction to enable cross functional work and activity (Hughes). With the rise of dotcom companies this concept increased dramatically (Cardon & Okoro, 2009).
From this historical context and the subsequent research conducted by the academics the following conclusions were drawn:
1. There is no evidence that casual clothing affects the productivity of staff, the quality of work or their attendance. There is no difference between formal attire or casual clothing other than personal preference (Hughes).
2. Casual clothing creates a feeling of friendliness (Cardon & Okoro) which could lead to a better customer experience, especially in back office areas such as contact centres.
3. Casual clothing is associated with creativity and friendliness (Cardon & Okoro) which is ideal for marketing and strategy teams as well as contact centres. Formal business attire is more associated with authority and competence (Cardon & Okoro).
4. When people are wearing casual clothing they have a higher tendency to have open communication between managers and employees, a reduced cost due to not having to pay for formal uniforms and an increase in morale (Hughes).
5. Senior Executives who wear casual clothing find that they become more approachable to staff members because the executive feels more comfortable and doesn’t look as intimidating (Biecher et al).
6. Dressing casually creates a feeling of freedom for employees (Biecher et al).
7. A company will need to define what is casual and what is slovenly (Biecher et al). This is because the business needs to have a standard that while the dress code is relaxed, torn or ripped clothing or offensive slogans on t-shirts may not be acceptable or could hold a workplace health and safety implication.
8. For front of house staff, the attire must meet customer expectations (Biecher et al). If the business is high end direct sales or account rep, a suit and tie could be the expectation. For other brands a suitable uniform could be the expectation, whereas a low end retailer may allow casual clothing. In order to reduce brand damage and in effect sales front line customer facing staff in the field must wear clothes that meet the customer expectation of that brand (Biecher et al).
Is there any benefit?
The evidence clearly points that there is no evidence that clothing attire at work has any effect on encouraging or discouraging greater productivity or attendance.
The benefits are that people can become more friendly, approachable and comfortable if they can wear casual clothing. In terms of attracting people to work for your company there is extremely strong preference for business casual among young people (Cardon & Okoro) which is important when it is hard to find good people in today’s saturated job market place.
The advantage of casual clothing in the workplace is:
- People are more approachable and friendly which leads directly to better team work and morale as well as a better outcome for customers
- Increase in approachability for senior executives from staff members that leads to increased morale
- Ability to attract younger staff members due to the modern working environment and conditions
- Reduced cost to the business in uniforms
The traps for this policy are:
- The organisation needs to define clearly what is business casual and what is slovenly
- The organisation needs to continue to meet customer expectations, so while casual may be OK for back office non-customer interacting staff, it may not be appropriate for people in Shops, reps or inhouse technicians. This balance is important in protecting the brand and also sales
On this basis the benefits of wearing casual attire in Contact Centres and back office areas clearly do not affect performance, but create a more open and friendly workplace with reduced costs. As a result there is an opportunity to increase staff attraction and retention which will benefit the business overall.
Biecher, E, Keaton, PN & Pollman, AW, 1999, ‘Casual Dress at Work’, Society for the Advancement of Management, Vol. 64, No. 1
Cardon, PW & Okoro, EA, 2009, ‘Focus on Business Practices: Professional Characteristics Communicated by Formal Verses Casual Workplace Attire’, Business Communication Quarterly, August
Hughes, SM, 2001, ‘The Effect of Casual Dress on Performance in the Workplace’, Undergraduate Research Journal for the Human Sciences