Remote Working’s Impact on Work Attire

I am a fan of remote working. I realize it might not be right for every job, but, where it can be incorporated, there are many benefits that typically outweigh the costs. With the number of remote workers in the U.S. doubling over the past decade to about 4 million today, I know I am not alone (source).

I could even argue that we are now in the middle of a cultural megatrend, which is now impacting other areas of our lives. As one example, what constitutes “work attire” has now come into question. Given all the remote working that is now occurring, what has been the impact on business casual?

To those that track fashion trends, it should come as no surprise that we have a fashion shift underway. Work attire standards are shifting once again.

There has been a pattern of evolving work dress codes for the past hundred years or more. In fact, it isn’t too difficult to see an old photograph and tell what decade the picture was taken, based on what clothes were worn. From the top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln in the late 1880s to the double-breasted suits of the 1930s to the white shirts worn by IBMers of the 1960s, work fashion has evolved with the times.

The Tech Industry and Its Impact on Work Attire

Before the 1990s, those who worked in technology roles, such as computer scientists or electrical engineers, were often (negatively) stereotyped as “nerds” or “geeks.” For this group of workers, what to wear was all about function vs. style. The iconic pocket protector served a viable purpose – it kept leaky pens from staining a perfectly good shirt, so was an obvious fashion accessory that no one thought twice about adopting.

Then, along came the Silicon Valley, the Internet and the late 1990s startups that incubated a sizable group of new multi-millionaires. The work world – and what constituted fashionable work attire – would never be the same.

Suddenly, jeans became cool to wear to work, along with t-shirts, flip-flops or whatever else was comfortable and the opposite of traditional business attire. We all know how Steven Jobs dressed in his black turtleneck sweater and jeans. He took “function” to a whole new level by dressing nearly the same every day! Think of how efficient his mornings were when deciding what to wear that day. Here is a good article that highlights others who have adopted this clothing strategy: Steve Jobs Always Dressed Exactly the Same. Here's Who Else Does, by Jacquelyn Smith on the Forbes Staff.

Working at a technology startup was a badge of honor whereby financial success offered a “hall pass” to no longer comply with existing social standards or fashion standards.

Another work attire transformation that became mainstream in the 1990s was Casual Friday, which was also referred to as “dress-down Friday” or simply a “casual day.” Starting in Hawaii and then spreading to California and the rest of the globe, this is a day when some business offices relax their dress code on Fridays. Those businesses that typically would require employees to wear suits, dress shirts, neckties, and dress shoes now allow more casual attire on Fridays.

Remote Working’s Impact on Work Attire

Today, two decades after the 1990s tech industry disruption on the workplace, we have yet another technology transformation. The smartphone, ubiquitous high-speed Internet access and amazing performance and computing power from highly portable laptops have enabled knowledge workers to work from nearly anywhere – provided power and Internet access are there.

Here is an article that explores further the origins of today’s remote working revolution, and why it is now gaining steam: Why the Remote Working Revolution is Gaining Momentum.

With the un-tethering of workers no longer having to sit at a desk, the remote worker is now challenging the concept of what it means to be dressed in “work attire.” It should come as no surprise that new fashion options are further challenging the suit and tie, offering new options for today’s remote workers.

If asked what the remote or home worker outfit was 10 years ago, the stereotypical response would likely have been pajamas. Or, do you just sit in your underwear responding to emails?

In reality, these clothing options are not really practical, nor are they likely indicative of what fashion choices today’s remote worker adheres to.

First, it’s an incorrect assumption to think that all remote workers sit at home. Many prefer coffee shops, or perhaps might be road warriors that spend time catching up on work from the airport, on a flight, or while visiting clients once necessary meetings have been completed.

Obviously, in these situations, the work attire really hasn’t changed at all. The difference today is that we can be completely connected to the office through email, phone calls or instant messaging programs, just as if we were sitting down the hall – even if we are sitting at JFK airport waiting for a connecting flight.

Because of these amazing technological advances, it’s no longer obvious whether a remote worker is in the office or not. Similarly, from a worker’s perspective, the lines have blurred a bit if one is “working” or not. Like other remote workers, my day is a blend of doing work activities, taking a personal break to walk the dog or grab a bite to eat, which is then followed up by another work activity. With this blending of activities comes a blending of outfit choices.

In the end, remote workers are dressing in such a way that accommodates all the day’s activities. If an on-site client visit is part of my day, I’ll dress accordingly, perhaps with a jacket, dress shirt, and slacks. Of course, I never wear ties anymore, but I understand that those in financial services or other related fields are still stuck with that attire requirement.

A New Work Attire “Model”

A hybrid work attire option is emerging whereby some personal style choices are possible, with a high degree of local relevance or impact that is also in play. If your remote working environment is in the mountains of Colorado where skiing and other snow-related activities are common, a work from home outfit might be something that you could grab a few ski runs in the afternoon with, or close to, as that is the type of outfit that matches your local surroundings.

In the same way, if you work from home in a hot environment, then you are likely to wear clothing best for warm weather climates. If you go out to lunch, your clothing choices will then match your settings.

Just as the blending of how one’s time is spent working or doing personal activities, so too has the remote working attire blended to be a combination of what works for you and is in style with your local geography. Of course, in the next 10 years, something will change to trigger another fashion shift. After all, how else can we keep all the clothing manufacturers in business if we don’t keep needing to buy new outfits to stay in style!

How will visibility impact your business?