Many of us shudder when we hear the words 'dress code', be it attending a social event, interview or even in an office environment. It is a topic that throws most of us in to turmoil whilst we understand the expectations and contend with a desire to fit in. Even those of us who wish to be individual and stand out, still need to understand the dress code to do so.
As an individual, we may invest a lot of time thinking about what to wear and what it says about us. So why should organisations be any different? As with any person, the way an organisation presents itself is key to its culture, and dress code is at the heart of that. Below, I explore this controversial topic, considering why organisations would look to relax a company dress code and provide some tips to consider for anyone that wishes to embrace the change.
Traditionally, organisations have had smart attire with suits, boots and pencil skirts. Whilst certain sectors have varied in the level of formality, from three-piece suits to shirt and trousers, office attire has remained reasonably unchanged. However, the corporate world is changing, with the digital revolution, the rise of Silicon Valley and the creation of many more tech and start-up organisations, we have seen the introduction of casual dress in the work place.
Organisations like Apple, Virgin and Innocent are well known for their relaxed environments, and in recent times even the more formal sectors such as banking and legal have seen a change with the likes of JP Morgan and Quinn Emanuel going casual.
Those that have made the change, have done so with the intention to enable their colleagues to be more themselves, feeling comfortable and relaxed in their work environment. Many believe that this creates a more empowering culture, encouraging creativity, innovation and high performance from their people.
"If you are meeting someone from Google, be more casual, if you are meeting the CEO from Dow Jones, wear a suit. Ultimately, it's about empowering and enabling people, not restricting them to a policy."
I recently worked with a retailer who was on a journey to digitally transform their organisation, they wanted to break away from a traditional process led organisation to one that led the way in Digital Retail. A powerful strategic move for them, was to introduce a dress code that aligned to their desired culture. It enabled colleagues to feel more comfortable when interacting with organisations such as Google and Digitas LBI, and helped to change the external perception of an organisation once viewed as old fashioned.
Organisations that remain formal do so because they feel that dressing smartly for work matches their market, culture and external brand. Their perception is that it improves the performance of their teams and some may feel that dressing too relaxed can encourage an idle attitude.
In many organisations, a more formal dress code is driven by functions that have a certain dress code due to health and safety reasons, or because colleagues are client or customer facing.
Some organisations will employ people in a range of workplace settings - from more formal, client facing roles to informal 'behind the scenes' warehouses or factories. You can still have a dress code that matches your culture. One retailer stopped managers wearing suits and all colleagues moved to polo shirts, which aligned to the brand. Warehouse colleagues already had relaxed clothing and simply followed health and safety regulations alongside that, by wearing protective footwear and high visibility jackets.
Similarly, you wouldn't be surprised to see casual and individual people in Apple – as it matches their brand. Yet in a bank branch you would expect suits. Sir Richard Branson embraces a relaxed dress code, yet still has certain guidelines for those that are customer facing: "I would go further than that and encourage staff to wear any clothing they think will help them to work most productively and enjoy their day. If that means shorts and a vest, then that’s fine, and not just in baking weather. The only exception should be places like airlines where it is important for guests to know who are passengers and who are crew."
Ultimately, it comes down to what image it is you want to portray both internally and externally, giving employees choice and empowering them to make sensible decisions on how they dress.
In empowered cultures, we work on the assumption that individuals can make informed and sensible choices. A relaxed attire doesn't mean scruffy, and you can still have a policy or guidance that sets boundaries, whilst still enabling people to have choice. You can also stipulate more formal attire for certain circumstances. If you are meeting someone from Google, go more casual, if you are meeting the CEO from Dow Jones, wear a suit. Ultimately, it's about empowering and enabling, not restricting to a policy.
In one organisation whilst looking to change the dress policy, the Head of HR said: "in ten years here I have seen many people try and fail to implement a relaxed dress code, good luck."
By working with the senior team on something that was fit for purpose and driven by the right people in the right way, we successfully landed new guidance across the organisation. I've given some tips below to help organisations with similar challenges, consider how to make this change.
Culture doesn't change overnight. Often, organisations will be set in their ways and will be used to the 'way things are done around here'. Everyone will have their own view and perception on dress code and you can never please them all. Look to implement guidance that has flexibility and that doesn’t limit people either way. Don't force people to be smart but equally don’t force people to be casual – enable choice. Trust that individuals will make the right dress choice, dependent on who and where they are meeting, aligning to customer brand and health and safety where applicable.
If you implement a new dress code and the entire senior team continue to dress in suits, you will quickly see the culture revert to how it was before. Ensure the change has buy in from the top of the organisation right down to the roots. Work with the senior team to create something that aligns to their vision and get their buy in from day one. Alongside, identify colleagues within the organisation that can champion and drive the change.
For culture change to be successful it must link to the organisations vision and strategy. If you can clearly show tangible links between what the business is looking to achieve, how the culture needs to support that and therefore the connections to employee perks, specifically dress code, then you are more likely to gain traction. Having a dress code that conflicts with the strategy or brand will not be successful.