No suit, no tie, no problem: Casual is the new formal for modern professionals

Despite ending its original run on television over a decade ago, The Office still enjoys tremendous popularity thanks to streaming services and syndication. Considered one of the best sitcoms of all time, the seminal TV series is still just as funny as when it first aired, but also serves as a fascinating peek into the not-so-distant past of office culture. 

Each and every employee at the fictional paper company arrives for work Monday through Friday in full formal business attire. The men wear suits complete with ties and blazers, while the women of Dunder Mifflin are seen in pantsuits, high-necked blouses, knee-length skirts, and high heels. 

Although the show only aired during the early to mid 2000s, its depiction of a normal or average office dress code for the time must be quite jarring for many younger viewers. The past decade or so has seen an enormous societal shift away from such stringent business dress codes. The vast majority of professionals today wear t-shirts, sweatshirts, and far more casual fare while working, and only break out the formal wear for major occasions like job interviews or big presentations. 

A Gallup poll conducted last year reports a meager 3% of U.S. workers still wear business professional clothing day in and day out while on the job. Far, far more modern day professionals say their usual outfits are either business casual (41%) or totally casual street clothes (31%). 

The factors underlying this undeniable shift in work culture are both myriad and multifaceted, but the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift toward more remote work options absolutely played a pivotal role. Millions of people became accustomed to answering emails in their pajamas during the pandemic, and while companies eager to see their employees return to the office can’t eliminate commutes, they can at least offer a more casual dress code. 

Do the clothes make the worker?

Proponents of casual dress codes and attire for workers say relieving employees of the burden of dressing up each day frees them up to focus more on the tasks that actually matter. The added comfort and lower stress levels promoted by casual clothes leads to improved employee morale, productivity, and creativity. At least that’s the usual argument in favor of throwing ties and blazers aside in favor of hoodies and polos. On the other hand, there’s also something to be said for looking the part and feeling good about one’s appearance. 

Unfortunately, the scientific jury is still very much out regarding the actual impact of clothing on productivity. While one well-cited poll reports over 60% of workers believe they would be more productive and happy if allowed to wear whatever they wanted to work, that’s not nearly enough information or data to draw any real conclusions. Meanwhile, another study concludes casual attire generally has a neutral impact on employee attitudes, behaviors, and performances – at least when it comes to positions that don’t entail interacting with consumers or customers on a face-to-face basis.

Speaking of in-person interactions, recent research suggests those in the medical field should probably stick with more formal wear while meeting with patients. A study published in BMJ Open surveyed over 4,000 patients being treated at 10 major U.S. hospitals. Half of those individuals said they consider it very important what doctors wear, and another third even went so far as to say what their doctor wears influences their satisfaction with the care provided. The most desirable outfit for a doctor? You guessed it: formal attire (along with a white coat).

Alternatively, another study published in the scientific journal Societies lends more support to the notion of casual clothes reigning supreme. The research indicates casual dress codes can make life much easier for employees with disabilities, as many workers with various physical limitations or medical needs find it especially difficult to find wearable clothes that conform with formal dress code mandates. 

Dress codes and perceived ethics 

Another noteworthy and relevant piece of research recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics set out to analyze how casual, business casual, and business formal attire influence perceptions of ethicality. Put another way, do people tend to perceive someone dressed in a suit as more ethical than another wearing a tracksuit? 

Interestingly, the ensuing findings tell us that both totally casual outfits (shorts, t-shirts, etc) and strictly formal wear (ties, blazers, etc) can lead to wearers being seen as unethical. While the context of the situation plays a major role as well, researchers found that business casual outfits (button down shirts, slacks, sweaters) are usually the best option in terms of being seen as ethical. Perhaps going too casual may convey that you simply don’t care, while draping yourself from head to toe in designer formal wear could run the risk of appearing materialistic or superficial.