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        What the science says about work from home attire and productivity

        What the science says about work from home attire and productivity

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          Much has been written about the impact of working from home on levels of productivity, not so much about what we’ve all been wearing.

          Two years ago, our lives were turned upside down with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. Office-based personnel very suddenly found themselves working from home and many have since established a hybrid working arrangement in which the 5-day fully office-based working week is a thing of the pre-Covid past.

          Paradigm shift

          Working from home also brought about a huge shift in what we are wearing on a daily basis. We immediately adopted comfy clothing, with some of us even spending whole days in our PJs or exercise clothes, having started our day with a Joe Wicks workout or the obligatory daily walks we were encouraged to take. Of course, there were the times (too many times) that we were required to switch on our cameras for interminable Zoom calls and depending on who they were with we popped a smart top on whilst still sporting pyjama bottoms. No one was any the wiser and we were significantly more comfortable. Comfort in any shape or form was what we were all craving in those dark early days of the pandemic when many people were working on makeshift desk set-ups, AKA kitchen tables and sitting on the least ergonomic of chairs, or worse still, sofas, or even beds!

          Even those of us who have returned to the office are doing so in much more casual attire than before, with suits and smart dresses reserved for client meetings and special events only. Anyone who frequents charity shops will find them fit to burst with traditional office attire, long discarded, and clothing brands once dependent on the office worker market have had to significantly rethink their collections.

          The new normal

          Two years on from the early working from home days, we are no closer to a solution for the optimum work-from-home dress code, but research suggests that our choice of WFH attire is critical to our productivity.

          What we wear has always been intrinsic to how we think, how we behave and how we interact with others, as well as influencing how we are perceived by our colleagues, business contacts and clients, so getting our work from home attire dress code right is essential.

          Happily, clear guidance has emerged for businesses and individual workers operating in this new hybrid world of work.

          Research begun a decade ago by Hajo Adam at Bath University and Adam D Galinsky, then of Northwestern University, Illinois, found that even the smallest change to one’s attire – such as donning a lab coat – can have a profound effect on the wearer, increasing their sense of power and improving focus. Experiments inspired the concept of enclothed cognition, which explains how thought and behaviour are impacted by clothing and its symbolic associations.

          Enclothed cognition offers an explanation as to why wearing a suit increases levels of testosterone while empathy is increased in a person wearing a nurse’s uniform. Context is also important, not just the attire itself. It goes without saying that a suit worn in an office can make the wearer feel respected and powerful but wear the same outfit in an exercise class and that feeling changes dramatically to one of being completely out of place. So, context is also tricky when working from home because it creates a tension between our personal and professional selves.

          What to wear?

          Past research suggests that professional attire inspires engagement and a sense of power, but this research was conducted in a pre-pandemic world in an office or laboratory.

          Bringing the research more in line with today’s WFH attire dilemma, Galinsky, now the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School, together with Erica Bailey and Blaine Horton, both doctoral students at Columbia Business School, recently conducted multi-day experiments in the homes of more than 400 remote workers from a broad ranger of sectors. The remote workers were asked to wear different types of attire on different days. Some were told to wear the same clothes they would normally wear to the office; others were instructed to wear the clothes they would normally wear at home. Also studying what the trio define as the ‘Zoom mullet’, some participants were asked to wear work attire on their top halves and home attire on the bottom. The study looked at what happened when participants tried all three variants across the three days, as well as those who were randomly assigned just one of the three options for the entire three days.


          The researchers asked each participant to report at the end of every day on three key psychological outcomes: engagement, authenticity and power. Overall, the feeling of authenticity is most in line with the feeling of being oneself and research shows that engagement at work is increased by feelings of authenticity. This increased engagement benefits both employers and employees, stimulating improved involvement and productivity, while a sense of power is essential for enabling people to feel focused, confident and in control.

          The findings of the research were contrary to past research but highlight the unique nature of these post-pandemic times. The Zoom mullet certainly registered no positive effects, rather it had a mostly negative impact on feelings of power, authenticity and engagement. Professional attire also failed to consistently enhance feelings of engagement or power.

          Home attire was a clear winner as it consistently improved authenticity and engagement. With these two feelings so intrinsically linked, it makes complete sense that when workers feel more like themselves, they are then more engaged and ultimately more productive.

          Many companies, in this new era of hybrid working, will have already reassessed their office dress code, but this research suggests that when it comes to our attire, it is the context in which it is worn that means the most. Galinsky, Bailey and Horton would recommend that “to help workers continue to bring their best selves to work, managers should encourage workers to pick clothes that fit where their work is being completed.”


          Images courtesy of Canva

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