Laura Johnson discusses if it really matters what we wear to the office - especially in the summer months when most of us would prefer to come in wearing our shorts and flipflops
We’ve had the first glimmer of summer sun for 2014 and that’s all it takes for some of us to abandon our winter uniform of stiff collared shirts and tailored trousers for some all together more relaxed seasonal work attire. Yes, offices across the country are currently resonating with the familiar flip-flop sound that marks summer is here and corporate dress codes are being stretched beyond their limits.
This inevitably causes upset amongst more traditional office stalwarts who are offended by the rising hemlines, exposed bra straps or extra chest hair on display. But does it really matter that balding Tim from IT is showing off some surprisingly hairy toes in his summer Birkenstocks if he solves your computer emergency in 10 seconds flat? And is the fact that Mary from accounts has her bingo wings on display really going to dampen the great news about your end of month sales target she’s come over to deliver? Probably not.
For some of us, there are certain standards of dress attached to our working lives. These are unavoidable, whatever the weather. How would you feel about handing over your life’s savings for investment by a banker wearing a pair of frayed cut-offs? Probably not as confident as if he had a silk handkerchief slipped meticulously into a Savile Row blazer. Would you trust diagnosis from a doctor wearing board shorts? Nope. But outside of a handful of professions, employers are slowly realising a perfectly pressed shirt isn't a surefire sign of professional competence and embracing the business benefits of dressing comfortably. A poll of 2,000 British workers by online bank First Direct in 2011 found that only one in 10 employees wears a suit every day, more than a third of staff opt for jeans and only 18% regularly wear a tie. Slackening the corporate dress code seems to be as important to achieving today’s highly desirable relaxed work environments as installing sofas in break out areas and ping pong tables in meeting rooms.
However, there are still certain lines employees are expected not to cross when it comes to appropriate office dress. The challenge is knowing where this hazy boundary falls. Company dress codes are becoming maddeningly confusing. What does ‘business casual’ actually mean? Anyone? A uniform of chinos and a blue open collared shirt? Here are my top five grey areas to worry about when it comes to what you can wear to the office in the summer:
1. Gladiator sandals. They’re as foot-exposing as a flip flop, yet do the leather (rather than plastic) straps make them acceptable?
2. Shorts. Hot pants and frayed cut-offs are clearly a no-no, but what about tailored shorts that fall modestly just above the knee?
3. Polo shirts. Are they an appropriate collared alternative for warmer months?
4. Sleeveless tops. Showing upper arms seems to be ok for female workers nowadays but at what width do straps get too skimpy?
5. Tights. Are bare legs ever acceptable?
The truth is, without the comfort blanket of a stifling suit to wear as office uniform, many of us don’t actually know what to wear to work nowadays. As a result, we spend a frustrating amount of time pondering over it. A survey by digital fashion marketing club StyleCard revealed that women on average spend over a year of their lives making outfit choices, with deciding what to wear to work apparently taking 12 minutes every morning (in addition to the dithering in front of the wardrobe done before going to bed the night before). With the added complication of the sun, I expect this figure rises even higher.
So what can you do to help your employees resolve this daily dilemma and keep office wear conservative this summer? Human resources experts and stylists have long advised to dress for the job you want, not the job you have. So, first and foremost, don't break the rules yourself. Some offices go on to take a legislative approach to tackling summer fashion faux pas by sending out stern emails, but be prepared for the inevitable sniggers and mockery this will provoke. The most widely accepted way to deal with dress code issues is in an adult fashion. Talk to your employees and tell them what you expect and why. Immediately take anyone who is dressing inappropriately to one side and be direct (yet tactful) about what they are doing wrong. And if all else fails, force them to reach for a cover up by turning up your office air con!*
* This final suggestion is a joke but is not an unknown tactic.