This morning, I woke up, washed my face, brushed my teeth and hair, and walked to my closet to figure out what to wear to the office. It’s a far cry from how I’ve been starting my work days this past year: wake up, grab my laptop from my nightstand, and check my email.
The coronavirus crisis has understandably-but-radically shifted what our work days (and habits) look like. But another change is on the horizon as vaccines continue to roll out: getting back to an office-centric grind.
As of publication, 58 percent of the adult U.S. population has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, and 44 percent of adults are fully immunized, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, businesses around the country, big and small, are reopening their doors — albeit with mask mandates, vaccine requirements and hybrid schedules, in many cases — while experts ease guidelines regarding indoor behavior.
That means more people — those who haven’t been out on the frontlines this whole time, anyway — are slowly returning to lives of working outside the home. So we wondered — what are those folks doing and thinking about when they open their closets, perhaps for the first time in months, to get ready for the day? Is it a problem if, like me, an employee experimented with a wild new hair color? (Note: The Story Exchange has been very supportive of my now-purple locks.) And in a broader sense, what are employers expecting of their employees?
Getting Ready For Getting Ready
What it really comes down to is what’s best for all involved.
The research that does exist on the matter finds that the majority of employees feel more productive in work environments that skew casual. But those studies were all conducted pre-Covid — we need to know what to do now. Should bosses encourage professional styles that reconnect us to our old routines, or allow for relaxed attire that more closely emulates the comfort-clad work days we’re now accustomed to?
We put out a call to see what women business owners and leaders are thinking. And our informal temperature check revealed that, for the most part, they’re far more concerned with the quality of employees’ work, and their overall well-being, than with what they’re wearing.
Of course, most aren’t exactly planning on proclaiming every day as pajama day, either. Kate MacDonnell, chief marketing officer for coffee supply seller Coffee Affection, does feel that maintaining a professional appearance is important. However, she adds, “it’s going to be very difficult to bust out the pantsuit when we’re back in the office when I’ve been wearing nothing but jeans and leggings working from home the last year and some change.”
In consideration of that, she’s leaning toward “a sort of quiet agreement that we’ll all take it down a notch when we start returning to the office. What was once pant suits will become jeans, and so on.”
Laura Fuentes, team leader and operator at Boca Raton, Florida, television and internet provider Infinity Dish, recently reopened her office to her 12-strong team — and opted to keep things casual when she did so. “My employees had a tough year working remotely, and they grew accustomed to certain changes that aren’t going away anytime soon,” she says. “Clothing items like jeans and hoodies are much more acceptable now then they were a year ago. I’m starting to recognize how little what we wear affects our day-to-day performance in the workplace.”
She adds, “When it comes to situations like these, it’s best to have empathy for those around you and consider all the factors at play.”
True, but to some extent, the answer to this question depends on what kind of business you run and who workers interact with throughout the day, notes Tania Rakel. She’s the co-founder of fashion boutique Mod On Trend in Edwardsville, Illinois. And in her experience, setting some guidelines for workers assisting customers — avoiding ripped jeans and casual t-shirts, for example — doesn’t hurt morale. But beyond that, “if your employees are able to express themselves through their clothing, they’ll interact with customers more openly and naturally.”
Ashley Mattila, owner of Marcus Ashley Gallery in Lake Tahoe, California, agrees on both fronts. “It’s important to look and feel your best when you work in a client-facing role,” she says, adding that she urges her consultants to be mindful of that when selecting their outfits. That said, “style is a wonderful way to connect with someone at first sight and get a sense of who they are.”
Personal, Instead of Professional, Choice
Eden Cheng, co-founder of software company WeInvoice, does subscribe to the idea that style impacts productivity — but not in the way some of her contemporaries think. “I have seen that [employees] are more comfortable and productive when the dress code is relaxed,” she says. “Creativity will emerge only when you are comfortable speaking, doing work, and wearing [comfortable clothing].”
This was the majority mindset adopted by the dozens of women leaders who responded to our callout — that comfort and personal preference trump everything else.
Besides, flexibility has its own benefits, says Marina Tran-Vu, founder and CEO of eco-friendly straw and utensil maker Equo. The freedom to wear what you want to the office “instills a sense of being able to truly be yourself, especially in an environment you’re in for half your life,” she says. “Also, being dressed up — really, what you look like — does not impact your output, your skill. It does not make you a better employee or boss.”
Sara Cemin, CEO of online template maker Realiaproject.org, has also found that “people are working from home, in their own comfort, and actually being more productive.” It’s because they’re able to be their authentic selves more, she asserts. “Some prefer to be in [tracksuits] all day while some prefer the professional feel. It is all about giving them the true choice to make that decision.”
And that’s why Ioana Surdu-Bob, co-founder and CEO of crowdfunding platform Konvi, has no plans to restrict workers’ attire at all. “Especially with the growing trend of online meetings, the full outfit may not even be visible to third parties. All I am looking is for the team to perform at high standards, and work attire does not correlate with performance.”
We’re definitely not back to working as though it were “before” just yet. My own office outing still came with modifications like masks, an off-peak commute (New York’s transit system was still experiencing delays, in a welcome, if annoying, flash of simpler times), and a day of chatting via Slack with the rest of our small team, all of whom were still working remotely. And my next work day will still begin with me sitting up in bed.
But the question of what to wear as we get ready for days OOHO (out of home office) is one that more of us will be facing as it becomes increasingly safer to rejoin the world. And as Cemin of Realiaproject.org says, when it comes to getting dressed for those days, people should think logically but feel at ease. “It’s about the genre of your work, what your day is like and who you are as a person.”
As I efficiently finished this writing assignment from my empty office, clad in my cutest jeans, a work-appropriate top and new pair of sneakers that sat near my front door for a month for lack of places to wear them — feeling equal parts comfortable and presentable — I was, and am, inclined to agree.