Formal or Smart-casual? How Employees Turn the Office into a Catwalk

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Different situations at work call for a range of attire. Perhaps you have a conference in the afternoon, but feel more creative in a t-shirt and jeans for your morning brainstorm. What should you wear to a meeting with a young start-up company, who perhaps encourage their workforce to dress smart-casual? The pressures of getting it right might end up seriously costing you.

We surveyed office workers around the UK to find out how they feel about the clothes they wear to work. From the rules they have to follow to the pressures they feel from others, we took a look at what informs our fashion choices in the workplace.

View our results below:

When asked how much they spent per month on clothing specifically to wear at work, 22% of people said they spent more than £50 a month. It may not seem like much, but that’s £600 each year, and an estimated £27,000 over the course of a career. That means that by the time they retire, they’ll have spent a little over the average UK annual salary (£26,500) just on clothing to wear at work.

So, why do we shell out so much cash on clothing over our careers? 52% of people said they have felt pressured into buying new clothes to ‘keep up appearances’ at work. Of those workers, their biggest source of pressure was their fellow employees, with 42% fearing female colleagues would judge their chosen clothes, and 41% fearing the same thing from male colleagues. Those who wore smart-casual attire were most worried about their boss judging their appearance, suggesting that these workers may find it hard to balance formality with comfort when those in a more senior position are around. This could become a large problem, as smart-casual was the most popular workplace dress code in our survey.

When looking at how different offices’ dress codes affected employee morale, we found a clear link between formal clothing and feeling confident. 70% of people that wear business formal clothing feel confident while at work, though this feeling decreases the more casual a workplace’s dress code is. Only 55% of those that wear smart-casual attire felt confident at work, falling to 45% with casual clothing and 35% for uniformed workers.

But if workers are allowed a more lenient dress code, why would they feel pressured by their colleagues to purchase new clothing? The answer may be that workers feel that they can’t wear the same outfit twice in a professional setting. Uniformed workers obviously don’t feel this pressure, and employees with a formal dress code can play it safe with varied shirt and jacket combinations. However, being able to wear their own clothes in the office could mean employees feel obliged to make additions to their regular wardrobe to avoid being seen as wearing the same clothes repeatedly.

Gemma Terrar, European HR Business Partner at Viking, offered her opinion on the pressures that employees may feel in the workplace:

“There are some long held beliefs that unless you’re wearing a shirt and tie to work you don’t look smart, so it’s understandable that men can feel pressured to conform to the ‘office uniform’. This perspective is, however, rather outdated and problematic due to the subjective nature of what exactly is classed as ‘smart’.”

“As an HR professional, I’ve seen it become more and more common to have a casual dress code – possibly due to the influence of millennials in our workplace. As a result, wearing a shirt and tie is not only becoming a thing of the past, but our restrictions for what counts as ‘business formal’ have relaxed. Now, it isn’t uncommon to find a business meeting without a suit jacket in sight.”

When it came to who has it easier, there was an interesting divide between not only the sexes but also the formality of the workplace dress code. Those with a formal dress code claim that women are under less scrutiny. Interestingly, workplaces with a smart-casual, casual or uniform dress code said men were under less pressure. This suggests that, while women may be under pressure to integrate their regular and work wardrobes, men are more likely to stuck in the old-fashioned view that a suit and tie are office essentials.

“Employees should never feel pressured to alter their appearance, but that starts with workplace dress codes being both clear and inclusive. Smart, clean clothing that won’t cause offense to fellow colleagues or customers is easy to achieve and, as we’ve seen with our own, flexible dress code, it affords employees a lot of choice – making it easy to dress comfortably on any budget. Through this, we’ve found that our employees generally don’t feel pressured or worried about their workplace attire.” – Gemma Terrar

How do you feel about you dress code at work? Are you suiting up each day or swapping out your wardrobe now summer is here? Let us know on Twitter @Viking_Chat!