Do traditional work clothes really make you more productive?

April 17, 2022, 1:00 PM UTC

As companies call staff back to offices—at least part-time—some employees are fretting over what to wear. After two years of wearing pretty much whatever they want, donning uncomfortable workwear, like a suit, panty hose, or “hard pants,” as they are often referred to on Twitter, is the last thing most Americans want to do. Of the many indignities they face—commuting, sitting all day in a tiny cubicle, listening to a coworker’s loud chewing—giving up sweatpants might be the worst of all. 

Some experts say that it’s time to change the way we dress for work—arguing that sweatpants and comfortable clothes make us more productive.  But the debate over conservative work clothes is far from new.  

A year before the initial pandemic shutdowns, Goldman Sachs announced it would relax its formal dress code for all employees, in response to “the changing nature of workplaces generally in favor of a more casual environment.” Where the financial firm once required staffers to wear jackets and ties, now employees could embrace a more relaxed look. In the email announcement, the bank’s CEO, CFO, and president said they hoped the change would “provide flexibility for our people and create a welcoming environment for all.” 

The change sent out shockwaves. Goldman, a white-shoe bank, was previously considered one of the few reliably business-formal workplaces in America. “Goldman Sachs, one of the last bastions of crisp-collared, bespoke-suited workplace attire, has loosened up,” the Washington Post reported at the time. But staff—at least, male staff for whom business casual is clear-cut—roundly appreciated the new rules. As one banker told GQ, “All the men are psyched.”

A more laid-back approach to workwear has been gaining steam for years—especially in Silicon Valley. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, notorious for his sweatshirt-and-flip-flops uniform, put his ethos plainly.

“I really want to clear my life so I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community,” he said in 2014. “Making small decisions about what you wear…consumes your energy. I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous. That’s my reason for wearing a gray T-shirt every day.”

Employees prefer casual work environments too. A 2019 survey by Randstad, an employment and recruiting agency, found one in three workers would quit a job—or turn down an offer—if it required them to follow a conservative dress code. They would even choose a company with a casual dress code over an extra $5,000 pay. The 1,200 respondents worked in a variety of industries, from transportation and retail to government and finance. 

But pre-pandemic, a casual dress code usually referred to jeans and collared shirts instead of suits and ties for men and dresses and heels for women. After two straight years of working from home, many employees want things to be even more casual, pushing employers to embrace their staff showing up in sweatpants and other leisurewear. 

If these casual colleagues can prove they’re more productive in their soft pants, will managers be more willing to embrace this shift?

The sweats revolution

“There’s a revulsion to having to dress uncomfortably again,” Chris Lindland, CEO of Betabrand, a San Francisco athleisure company, told Fortune in August. 

Since the pandemic, sweatpants sales for athleisure company Aviator Nation have quadrupled, CEO Paige Mycoskie tells Fortune. In that time, she says, sweatpants have become “completely acceptable pretty much everywhere,” which has inspired her team to start designing sweats for all occasions.

Mycoskie, 42, doesn’t buy the idea that formal work clothes are conducive to better job performance. “I’ve built this company while wearing sweats,” she says. She ties productivity to comfort—and that’s her company’s guiding principle. 

Not everyone agrees. Loungewear is best for deep thinking but not necessarily decision-making, argues Dr. Miriam Lacey, professor of applied behavioral sciences at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School

“That’s why management retreats have become popular over the last 30 years,” she explains. “The managers all go off to a resort or hotel somewhere, where they’re in a bubble, and they can dress down.”

But Lacey still believes that professional clothes are essential at work.

“A bit of formality goes a long way, because formality provides authority,” she says. “How you appear is connected to how your ideas are received. It affects your credibility.” 

Randstad’s research bears this out: 79% of the workers surveyed said they currently work at a company with a business-casual or casual dress code, but two-thirds said they felt it would be important to wear a suit to an interview.

Michael Burt, a third-year medical student at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, says he’s most productive when he’s at home, in sweatpants.

While attending virtual lectures and taking virtual exams, Burt exclusively wore sweats. But his school has still held mandatory events, including in-person lectures, where students are expected to wear business-casual. “Especially if deans or professors are giving talks, they want an in-person audience, and you have to look the part,” Burt tells Fortune. “But when you’re home, you’re not doing any impression management. That increased level of comfort frees up more of my energy for my work.”

That’s one reason he loves wearing scrubs. “They’re extremely comfortable—like sweatpants—and they’re standardized,” he says, adding that removing the pressure of matching a tie to a shirt means he can focus entirely on his job. “You don’t have to worry about how they feel, if they get dirty, or even having to do laundry. You don’t have to think about it, and no one else is thinking about it.”

Evening the playing field

Working from home has unlocked many more opportunities for people who thrive in nontraditional work environments—parents who want to be available for after-school pick-ups, night owls finishing reports at midnight, or people with anxiety who find comfort in working in their own space. 

Susan Fitzell, an educational consultant focused on helping companies better support neurodiverse employees, says the anti-casual dress code argument neglects an important perspective: people on the autism spectrum. 

People with autism or Asperger’s—an estimated 2.2% of the U.S. population—often struggle with sensory overload, Fitzell said. 

“If they’re required to wear a uniform or certain type of clothing that’s itchy, a big part of their mental energy goes toward dealing with that stressor,” she tells Fortune. “As the day goes on, that really takes away from their relaxed state, which then makes them less productive.”

But it’s not just folks on the spectrum; Fitzell says even women working in industries where they are expected to wear high heels can relate. When a certain article of clothing isn’t explicitly necessary for a job—such as a hardhat on a construction site or a uniform for a police officer—letting people wear whatever they don’t have to think about could be a huge boon to productivity. And as the talent war wages on, an office dress code, like so many draconian workplace rules and expectations, could go the way of the fax machine.

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