There has been a clear change in typical office attire over the past few years. Back in the 1980’s, office workers were expected to ‘dress to impress’ no matter the role. Nowadays however, businesses give employees a little more freedom when it comes to what they wear, and business casual has become a work style staple. But does what you wear for work affect how well you do your job? Here, we take an in-depth look at formal vs casual office wear….

What is business casual?

Most people define business casual as a style that is less formal than traditional business wear, whilst still giving the impression of professionalism. For a man, this might be a mens white shirt without a tie, navy trousers and loafers. For women it could be a smart blouse with cropped, tailored trousers and flat shoes.

One theory is that the trend towards business casual was influenced by the younger workforce. It seems as though this age group is more protective over identity and style of dress and are opposed to being told what to wear.

A study into the 18-24 age group found that one in ten had thought about leaving their job as a result of rigid dress-code rules. Older employees, however, do not share the same strong views. Only 7% of those aged 55 and over said that they would think about leaving their employment because of the dress code. Compare this to 17% of 18-24s and it’s clear to see a divide. It might depend on which sector you operate in as to how your staff feel about uniform. Those working in the energy sector (32%), science and pharma sector (31%) and IT sector (29%) are most likely to leave their role due to dress code requirements, one study discovered.

But should companies consider relaxing their dress code rules to keep staff happy? Quite possibly. Employers are aware of how high staff turnover can have great cost and productivity implications. Costs incur during the recruitment process as the position is advertised and time is spent by employers interviewing and selecting candidates. Having a dress code may deter candidates too — 61% of people looking for a new job in 2017 said that they’d have a negative perception of any company that enforced a dress code. Productivity also takes a hit, as often a current employee has to spend time training the new starter or letting them shadow their day-to-day activities — this can prevent existing workers from working to their maximum capacity.

The influx and success of creative companies is another reason to consider a more casual dress code. In fact, between 2010 and 2016, the creative industries sub sectors (i.e advertising, film and TV) grew their economic contribution by 44.8%. Dress code is often less strict in these companies, as employees are encouraged to express their ‘creative flair’.

Does what you wear at work affect your behaviour?

Studies have concluded that how you dress in the office has a significant impact on your workplace behaviour. In one study, subjects were presented with a white coat and told different things. The participants that were told it was a doctor’s coat, felt more confident in accomplishing tasks compared to those that were told they were wearing a painter’s coat. Other research shows that wearing more formal clothing can make people think more broadly.

Conversely, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is well known for dressing in casual clothing every day. He says that dressing in this way gives him one less decision to make and allows him to focus on more important workplace decisions.

A study by Stormline concluded that most UK workers would feel more productive and make extra effort to dress well if the strict rules on dress code were relaxed. Moreover, 78% of respondents to one survey said that they would still make an effort to dress well and wouldn’t blur the line between ‘work clothes’ and ‘non-work clothes’ if there weren’t any rules on what to wear.

What should businesses do about dress code?

After looking at the data, we can see that dress code preferences depend very much on the individual employee. It may depend on their role, too. First impressions still, and most likely will, always count. If employees are in a client-facing role, it’s important to look professional and approachable — they are effectively representing the business and should be making it look good.

Businesses could benefit from asking their employees what their preferences are on dress codes and what makes them feel more productive at work. This could be the best indicator of whether a uniform is best for the business or not. As we’ve seen, uniforms can affect behaviour at work and it is down to the individuals as to whether they work best following, or not adhering to, a dress code.