Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment has learnt the spoken and unspoken rules of attire in the workplace. From expensive suits and heels to subdued colors and styles, many of us dutifully fulfilled those expectations in order to move up in our careers, a reality that is especially true for women. Traditional business attire is safe, and the rules of etiquette are often selectively and unfairly enforced depending on someone’s reputation, relationships, or business results. It can feel easier to just put on a suit and focus on the work. But after two years of hastily throwing a business jacket over a tee-shirt and sweatpants while letting people into our homes during the Covid 19 pandemic, our tolerance for conformity, and discomfort, has changed.
Have you been rethinking your work attire as you transition back into the office, but you’re worried about what others will think? Here are a few steps to try if you are considering changing things up.
If it feels risky to independently make a wardrobe change, look at others in your office and observe how they dress. You don’t have to follow what others are doing, but seeing others take those first steps may embolden you to make changes yourself. Observe the boundaries as well. Look for the nuances in how and when people dress down.
Experiment and evaluate
What if your colleagues aren’t noticeably changing their attire, but you feel strongly that you should? Take the lead: Try out one particular change and evaluate the response to it. Perhaps you drop the tie, or maybe you forgo the high heels for comfortable flats. Observe how (or if) people react and what the response is.
Look for the advantages
Lest you fear that dressing down might make you appear less successful to your peers or clients. A study found that nonconforming behaviours, as costly and visible signals, can act as a particular form of conspicuous consumption and lead to positive inferences of status and competence in the eyes of others.
Let your light shine
Now, it’s time for you to set your own dress code. In the beginning, it is all about comfort. But it soon becomes about something much deeper: a change in mindset around bringing the authentic self to the office. It’s becoming more widely accepted to allow your attire to be an expression of who you are, as opposed to a formal environment to which you need to mold yourself.
Authenticity sends a powerful message, and what we are seeing post-pandemic is that comfort does as well. Business executives can set the tone by demonstrating to others how the office dress code is changing. They can also discuss the boundaries so that no one gets caught in the middle.
At this very moment, as we continue our return to the office, we have a unique opportunity to rewrite the rules of office etiquette. What behaviours will we keep? Which outdated practices no longer serve us? Let’s create those rules ourselves and, in doing so, create space for others to bring their authentic selves to the office. We’ll feel more fulfilled and more confident as a result, and our feet will thank us.