Remote working and Zoom are bringing untidiness to the table, according to growing numbers of employers. It’s time, they say, for staff to smarten up and work smarter
In less than a year, remote working and Zoom calls have borne witness to a transformation in the way business is conducted. Convention is out, convenience is in. Meetings take place on the sofa, at the kitchen table or even in the bedroom. But according to growing numbers of professionals, it’s also coming at a cost to sartorial standards of business attire.
“Breaking down barriers is one thing, but we’ve started to notice a creep towards lowering standards,” observes Lynne Lister, managing director of X-Press Legal Services, a network of 26 offices servicing hundreds of legal firms. “I’ve seen people in meetings still in their PJs and it’s reached a point where we’re going to be doing something about it.”
David Jones, partner at Glaisyers Solicitors and who confesses to regularly being the only person still wearing a suit and tie, says: “Now is when we need to nip things in the bud. Things have slipped. Our view going forward will be, it’s better to be too smartly dressed rather than under-dressed.
“The novelty of the cool lawyer wearing jeans and a T-shirt is wearing off. If we’re going to stay remote, we need to up our game.”
What they’re both opining is a sense of loss of professionalism; that expectation still remains, but thanks to Zoom casual clothes risk breeding casual minds too.
“Recently, it was a joy to get out a shirt and tie for an AGM I was hosting,” says Maurice Helfgott, chairman of retail management platform Brightpearl and former director at Marks & Spencer. “It made me feel more disciplined, and formal, and that I was raising my game. What you wear can definitely make you feel more professional.”
Is casual dress being normalised?
Certainly, attitudes to dress are changing. Recent research by Maintel found two thirds of workers admit they no longer change their clothes to look smart ahead of video calls. Some 17 per cent claim they tumble out of bed just minutes before an early-morning Zoom call starts. Meanwhile, just 6 per cent of staff now say they plan to buy a traditional business suit this year, according to a poll by Brightpearl.
But are firms right to insist on smartness? “Perception is everything,” says public relations consultant Sara Tye. “We risk casualisation becoming normalised, when really it means you can’t be bothered. When all we now see is the top half of a person, it’s almost incumbent to work harder to convey confidence. And it’s about showing respect. We seem to be forgetting we need to present ourselves just as we would face to face.”
If nothing else, Jones says dressing more akin to being in the office gives staff an opportunity to change out of their “work clothes” and recreate a sense they’re leaving the day job behind. It’s particularly important, he says, at a time when there is very little home-work distinction.
Other organisations lining up to enforce stricter home-working standards include those in sectors that have historically espoused dress code conformity, such as Sleeping Giant Media, a digital marketing firm. “If you wouldn’t do it in the real world, going casual because you’re on Zoom isn’t acceptable,” says managing director Anthony Klokkou.
But are we all getting our smart shirts and blouses in a twist? Doesn’t Zoom encourage recognising staff for their output rather than their image. Isn’t it the long yearned for emancipation workers have needed?
What standards are businesses setting for their workers?
Some agree. “It’s hard to pretend you’re not in a domestic setting, even if you have a different background on,” says Jason Cobbold, chief executive of creative agency BMB. “For me, naturalness and authenticity matters. The more we airbrush ourselves, the less real we are. Video calls are already harder to transmit energy, so worrying about what you wear is a distraction.”
But for Lister at X-Press Legal Services this simply won’t do: “We want people to be in work mode and we are, I’m afraid, still judged on our appearance,” she says. “If we think attire is inappropriate, we will now be mentioning it. People can be individual, but still be smart.”
What’s clear is many organisations need to consciously think about standards and decide their course of action. At outsourced receptionist company Moneypenny, staff used to be able to hide behind the anonymity of a phone. But recently, the business has moved into video reception calls.
“Our culture has always been about being yourself, which means we’ve been fine about people wearing sneakers and T-shirts,” says chief executive Joanna Swash. “But we will seek to represent the brands we work for. What someone wears for a Magic Circle [law firm] client should be different to another, perhaps younger, digital brand.”
While it remains to be seen just how far other employers will push back on their employees’ dress code, Sabrina Panizza co-founder of image consultancy PL Studio, argues the tide will turn and embrace more formality.
She says: “Yes, it’s important we are seen for who we are, but more businesses will realise that being on a video call actually magnifies a ‘first impression’. There’s not the wider body language cues we typically rely on when we see someone face to face. The first thing someone will see is literally if a person looks scruffy or smart.”
At Glaisyers Solicitors, Jones says staff will get a polite ticking off for being too casual. But according to Joanna Dai, founder of women’s work-wear brand Dai, which has seen a 50 per cent drop in demand for “office” jackets and dresses, the office-wear market was already changing. Like so many things, she thinks coronavirus has just accelerated the trend.
“We’re seeing the emergence of a new type of wardrobe, the flexible hybrid wardrobe,” she says. “It’s where comfort reigns, because people are at home, but it’s where being smart can be comfortable too.”