Working From Home and the right to bare arms.
In February 2021, the Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs released a new dress code for its 14,000 staff. The new code banned sleeveless tops, dresses or blouses, jeans, polo shirts, sneakers and ugg boots. The rules not only applied to the office. These items of clothing were banned on video calls too.
The new rules stated: “Staff working from home should display a neat and tidy appearance. If required to attend a meeting in person or virtually with external parties, the business professional attire standard applies.”
However, since the department had introduced the new code without seeking any input from the staff (something they were obliged to do), the Community and Public Sector Union mounted a challenge at the Fair Work Commission and won. So, for now, bare arms remain permitted on Home Office Zoom calls.
This is an example of the many ways COVID-19 and work-from-home are making companies rethink their professional dress standards?
In his book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, author Richard Thompson Ford studies how previous pandemics impacted the way people dressed. He points out that the plague in Europe was followed by the “sumptuous and expressive fashions” of the Renaissance. Religious leaders condemned such adornments as “vanities” and encourage their followers to throw them onto bonfires. From this, we get the expression “bonfires of the vanities”.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was followed by the exuberant fashions of the Jazz Age, but there was also the introduction of strict dress codes that banned cosmetics, skirts that exposed too much leg, and, would you believe it, bare arms.
Are we about to see a similar pattern? As people shake off this period of social isolation sweatpants and lockdown hoodies, will it spark an age of glitz, extravagance and conspicuous luxury, at least socially. And will such excess be challenged by those who view the COVID-19 years as an opportunity to reset our unhealthy addiction to fast fashion and embrace simple, practical and ethical consumption?
And how does this play out in the virtual workplace?
I think we all recognise now that work from home (WFH) will continue to have a long-term impact on workplace culture. Businesses are discovering how well they can perform with a decentralised team. While many professionals find the comfortable, less formal setting of their home has little effect on their productivity and offers many advantages.
As we settled into working from our home offices or converted dining tables, our suits hung undisturbed in the closet, and terms like athleisure and biz-leisure became social media buzzwords. We were all in the same boat: client and supplier, buyer and seller. The devaluation of our business appearance was across the board. I suspect this more relaxed dress code will become widely accepted in most industries. As one headline put it, ’like casual Friday every day’.
This sort of evolution in workplace attire is hardly new. Sixty years ago, formal business attire for a man was a 3-piece suit, a casual event meant a 2-piece suit, and nobody went anywhere without a hat.
What does “smart casual” or “business casual” actually mean?
Ok, I’m going to let you into an industry secret; no one knows. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say, no one can agree. The definition of smart casual or business casual will vary depending on the company you work for, the industry you belong to, the region you live in and the preferences of the person making the rules.
As a professional image consultant, I’ve seen a lot of companies struggle to get this right. After sleeveless tops and polo shirts, you can add denim anything, open-toed shoes or sandals, fleece jackets, cardigans and leggings to the list of contentious attire.
Oddly enough, ‘Smart Casual’ is what many people have to interpret every day. According to research by Seek.com.au, after uniforms, the most common workplace attire is smart casual (25%) and business casual (16%), followed by casual/informal (16%) and formal business attire (11%).
Not surprisingly, the same survey found 41% of people believed some people in their workplace don’t dress appropriately – either ‘too provocative’ or ‘too daggy’.
My advice to professionals working in an office with a business-casual dress code is to follow a few basic rules:
- Get the fit right. No matter the style, it needs to fit your frame. Not too tight, too loose, too short or too long.
- Take note of what your employer is wearing. They are setting the expectation of what’s acceptable within your place of employment.
- Bring personality, but err on the side of conservative. Avoid distressed garments, large logos, low cut or backless tops – they have a place in other areas of your wardrobe.
- Even small details can are noticeable online. Garments should be crease-free, stain-free and well presented.
- Don’t forget about your grooming.
Maintaining a professional image when working from home.
The first few months of lockdown were telling. It was fascinating to see how our colleagues and peers dealt with the office to home transition, those who maintained professional appearance and others who took to the comfort of home a little too enthusiastically. WFH memes of business upstairs, sweatpants downstairs flooded social media.
Tom Simpson, fashion director of online retailer The Iconic, said they saw a big demand for athleisure brands when the country first went into lockdown.
He told the ABC that if there was a number one item in fashion in Australia in 2020, it was a sweat top and a pair of sneakers.
At the height of lockdown, a survey of 1000 people in the US found 80% of people who claimed they dressed in business attire when working from home said they felt more productive. This compared to 70% of people who worked in athleisure or gym clothes and just 50% of those in loungewear.
My advice to business professionals who plan to continue working from home a few days a week is to resist the temptation to let standards drop too far, especially on video calls.
- Choose a top that is a different colour to your chair or the wall behind you. The contrast will make sure you don’t blend into the background.
- Your overall look should be neat.
- Accessories will instantly ‘lift’ your appearance on-screen.
- Wear COLOUR.
- Avoid stripes on video calls. They can result in a ‘swimming’ or strobing effect and be incredibly distracting.
With WFH set to be a permanent part of the Australian workforce, it would make a lot of sense for employers to establish some clear expectations around standards of appearance. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to a professional image consultant about what’s appropriate for your team and your industry.
If you’re a business leader would like to discuss the sensitive topic of workplace dress standards further, please reach out and contact me