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By Kathy Bloomgarden
April 18, 2017

British Columbia’s government recently made it illegal for companies to force women to wear heels to work, citing it as discriminatory and unsafe. (Britain was recently debating doing the same.) While it’s shocking that rules like this even still exist, the “kick the heels” debate points to a growing trend when it comes to the changing culture and dress codes of today’s workplace.

In a world where companies are fighting to attract and retain a pool of competitive top talent, casual dress ranks as a high priority for a large majority of workers. In fact, according to a survey by OfficeTeam reported by Forbes, half of the managers surveyed said their employees wear less formal clothing than they did five years prior. Further, in work environments that are increasingly more reliant on teamwork and customer service, it’s possible that casual attire could actually help improve interpersonal interactions and help workers bond with teammates and customers.

There are many examples of “hot” companies that have picked up on casual wear, though it’s often the startups that set the pace. More famously, the CEO heroes of today’s millennial generation such as Facebook’s (FB) Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s (GOOG) Sergey Brin, and Snapchat’s (SNAP) Evan Spiegel have ditched the suit and ties and almost exclusively sport hoodies at work, setting the tone to redefine professional attire in the workplace.

But this is not just about clothes. There is a far greater transition at work, and it’s not gender-specific. Employees want a positive work experience, which represents a fundamental change in the culture of the modern workplace. To win in this new environment, companies not only need a new approach to culture, but also a different “contract” with those who work for them. The change in women’s shoe attire, married with the move to business casual for men and women, builds on three fundamental elements in the new workplace movement.

The personal experience of work
Work is changing from a framework that enlists people to join and fulfill a set of tasks to one that I would call an employee experience strategy. Jobs used to be comprised of a list of responsibilities, to be executed one after the other. However, with more than 43% of people anticipated to be part of the so-called “gig” economy by 2020, companies have to create an environment that competes with the independence, flexibility, and engagement offered by the gig option.

I was reminded of this recently when I climbed into an Uber and the driver, who had just started, decided the evening was too slow and would just go home after he dropped me off. The gig economy offers people choice and fluidity. Geography is also becoming less of a barrier. Technologies like shared documents, telepresence, and video platforms have enabled teams to work much more closely together, whether they are physically in one site or dispersed across the globe, giving employees a stronger sense of community. As a recent study by Deloitte Human Capital found, the organization of the future will be almost entirely structured “based on work and projects, with teams focused on products, customers, and services.”

A company employees can believe in
A common C-suite concern is a lack of employee engagement with the purpose of a company’s work. While it is well known that higher engagement leads to better productivity, polls repeatedly show that the majority of the U.S. workforce (nearly 70% according to the latest report from Gallup) is not engaged. Many employees who are not engaged want a reason to be inspired. That’s why inspirational campaigns that focus on a company’s core values, purpose, and mission reach and touch employees so deeply, often eliciting high levels of response. Communications that are focused around topics and themes with high emotional resonance often result in stronger levels of engagement—such as commenting and sharing—while also strengthening employees’ personal connection to the reason a company exists.

My style, my working journey
There is an increasing shift from traditional top-down communications to more open dialogue with information flowing up and down. Personally, I often hear the priority people place on “having a voice” when I’m offering career advice or interviewing candidates. Companies are increasingly understanding this, and many are working to keep employees for the long term by matching them to the right opportunities based on their skill sets and personal preference.

In many instances, analytics are enabling companies to do this more efficiently, putting employees in the right jobs and with the best teams for them. Increasingly, companies are focusing on helping employees set goals and chart their own desired career path within the company. As Francine Katsoudas, senior vice president and chief people officer of Cisco (CSCO) explained in a recent interview, one of her top priorities for 2017 is “creating a culture where employees can experience one company, many careers through job changes, continuous skills development, and stretch assignments.”

To win in the war for talent, companies are radically shifting. The caricature of the businesswoman or businessman dressed for success is rapidly fading. Banning the demand to wear heels is getting rid of the past. It is however, only a small symbol of the dramatic changes redefining work that are happening today.

Kathy Bloomgarden is CEO of Ruder Finn.

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