A Case for Casual Clothing in the Workplace
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- In 2020, we were introduced to the Zoom mullet: business on top, party on bottom.
- Researchers found that what we wear to work has psychological impact.
- Comfortable clothes boost feelings of authenticity, which correlates to better work engagement.
The year 2020 was a social psychologist's fever dream as human behaviors shifted on a massive scale. A global pandemic led to widespread lockdowns. Relationships went online. People donned masks, disinfected produce, and hoarded toilet paper. Kanye West even ran for president.
To top it off, newly remote workers started wearing a strange new uniform: the Zoom mullet.
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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2020 and 2021 –– the same time that people first started logging into work wearing button-downs and their underpants –– labor productivity increased.
Three Columbia University researchers wondered: Could it be because of the clothes? They launched a 300-person study to find out.
What the Zoom Mullet Taught Us
For the study, researchers measured the psychological impact of different outfits on remote workers: home attire, professional attire, and mixed attire (the Zoom mullet).
Across the board, subjects reported measurably higher feelings of authenticity and engagement while dressed in their comfiest home attire. They reported some increase in feelings of power while wearing typically professional attire. They reported no benefits while sporting the Zoom mullet.
The Power of Authenticity
In their paper — "Enclothed Harmony or Enclothed Dissonance? The Effect of Attire on the Authenticity, Power, and Engagement of Remote Workers" — the researchers point out something most of us already know: Clothes affect how we feel.
It's why phrases like "power suit" and "dress for success" are so common.
Clothes can function as symbols of status, of class, of importance. So it comes as no surprise that workers reported feeling more powerful while wearing professional clothes.
Clothes can also function as extensions of personal identity. When subjects dressed for the workday in their comfy home attire, they reported feeling more authentic, more true to themselves.
Authenticity — more than power, the researchers note — is positively correlated with worker engagement. And engagement is the magic ingredient that makes employees truly successful and productive at work.
Clothes in Context
The context of our clothes also matters. For example, you'd probably feel confident wearing a suit jacket to a job interview, but silly wearing one to the beach. The researchers describe those psychological outcomes as "enclothed harmony" and "enclothed dissonance."
Workers experienced enclothed harmony by working from home dressed in their home attire (apparently there is nothing psychologically harmonious about the Zoom mullet, so let's just leave that trend in 2020).
But remote workers returning to the office in the same comfy attire will experience enclothed dissonance. According to the paper, the traditional physical setting of the office "activates different symbolic associations" of professionalism and appropriate work attire than does the physical setting of home.
Bringing Authenticity to the Workplace
But instead of telling workers headed back to the office to ditch their soft pants, the researchers suggest that "some employers may want to rethink dress codes entirely."
The psychological dissonance of wearing home attire to work could be solved by instituting casual dress codes at the office. This way, employers can "integrate the work and home self through attire" and "leverage the beneficial effects of authenticity and workplace engagement" at the same time.
Re-imagining "professional" attire may have other benefits as well. The researchers note that:
- A casual dress code would be helpful for people with multiple roles, such as parents.
- A casual dress code would be more affordable for low-income workers.
- Casual dress codes may level the playing field for disadvantaged groups.
Many companies, especially those that aren't strictly client-facing, have been doing this for ages. Google, for example, has no formal dress requirements whatsoever.
So if you're not sure what to wear to work tomorrow, consider that you'll likely be more engaged if you feel good in your clothes and more productive if your pants don't hurt. You can tell your boss that's science.