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We are in the middle of a crisis, not only concerning health and economics. Another issue affecting a lot of us at the moment relates to work clothing. What is the protocol when working from home? Is there still a guideline we should follow? Even though we seem to be embracing jogging pants en masse. It’s a question that can’t seem to be answered: Should we have a dress code when we work from home?
Enclothed Cognition in 2020
I have read many articles in recent months about the effects our clothing has on us when working from home. Looking at the studies, I see nothing new. There have been many studies in the past about how clothing affects us.
One of the best known is that of Adam Hajo and Adam D. Galinsky. They found during their research at Northwestern University that people who wore a white doctor’s coat scored better on a memory test than people who wore a painter’s coat. This was because one associates a doctor’s coat with a smart person, while a painter’s coat is associated with a creative character.
This phenomenon is called Enclothed Cognition, where clothing has both a symbolic meaning and a psychological effect. In short: we link the clothing we wear to a certain profession, and this changes how we think. From this perspective, you could say that it is smart to dress as you normally would for the office when working from home.
Dress code when we work from home
But they did this research in 2015, well before the world was introduced to corona. At the time, we could go to work as usual and we were not in a (partial) lockdown. While I think Enclothed Cognition is timeless, in 2020 it will have less of an effect on our behavior than other years when we are out and about in public. Experimenting with clothes feels different when you work from home and are not physically surrounded by your colleagues. No matter how often we hear about the importance of dressing well for ourselves, in practice, we don’t always apply this. Recent developments around companies that sell presentable clothing prove this. Now that more people are working from home, less clothing is being bought, especially in the business sector. We feel less of a need to look presentable.
In the year 2020, work clothing has taken on a different meaning for people who work from home. Previously the emphasis was mainly on the details of your appearance, from polished shoes to an ironed collar. Clothing has now become a way to determine our rhythm. It has become more of a holdfast, something that distinguishes between working behind a laptop or sitting on a sofa. Even though it all happens in the same room.
Employers in America
While our psychological relationship with clothing has changed, some employers want to stick to the classic dress code. What you would normally wear to the office, you should also wear when you work from home. Or at least when you are visible during a video meeting.
A recent study in the US found that 52% of employers ask their employees to adhere to the company’s dress code during video calls. At companies with formal dress codes, the percentage is lower, about 30% of employers expect employees to sit behind the camera in suits. The fact that more than half of employers continue to use the dress code may seem like a high number in percentage terms. But in general, employers have become more lenient. Before the pandemic, 21% of(American) companies had no dress code at all.
This means that employees can wear whatever they like. Since the global virus, employers have become a lot more flexible about this. Nearly half have now abandoned dress codes because people work from home. The business casual dress code has also declined in popularity. Previously, 37% of companies asked employees to dress in this style, while this has now dropped to 16%.
Employees whose company has relaxed the dress code also save a lot of money. Annually, according to calculations, they will spend an average of 185 dollar less per year on buying work clothing. On the other hand, employees who work from home spend more on things like heating, water, electricity, and coffee.
Is it worth it?
From a legal point of view, as an employer, you don’t have a leg to stand on. You cannot require an employee to dress in a certain way when he or she works from home. You may of course ask. But is it worth it? In these confusing times, is it necessary to impose a dress code on people so they look good in front of their colleagues? Or should you do it so they can use clothes to distinguish the separation between work and private life? And how far can this go? You could be talking about regulations that are patronizing or cross boundaries.
I think companies today should be more concerned with the psychological well-being of their employees than whether they wear business attire on screen. Of course, that does not mean that you as an employer cannot give advice or talk about dress codes. But don’t forget that we now live in a world where all forms of routine have disappeared. A world in which we are more than ever dependent on ourselves. This process will be different for everyone. For some, clothes will provide a rhythm for the day, while others will be happy when he or she gets out of bed without feeling depressed.
By the way, this is written by someone who still dresses daily in trousers and blouses, accessorized with ties and braces. I believe in the power of these clothes and accessories. But I believe even more in the power of empathy. I understand that as an employer you don’t want your employee to appear on the screen in pajamas, but let’s not make it difficult for us. You never know what is going on inside that person you are seeing through the screen.