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Manny Pantoja photo via Unsplash

More than a year into pandemic-inspired shift to remote work, the pants-less Zoom meeting has become part of the zeitgeist, as is clear from news reports and surveys citing the prevalence of the practice.

In casual Australia, the Department of Home Affairs saw a need to institute a dress code for remote workers on video calls. Shorts were a no-no, but so were sleeveless dresses and blouses, which raised the ire of the Community and Public Sector Union, a national trade union, which claimed the policy unfairly targeted women. It is being appealed.

And therein lies the dress-code rub. Implementing one can create different problems, especially among workers who have collective-bargaining agreements or who know their gender and sexual-orientation discrimination laws. Looking professional at home has therefore become another topic taking up time in corporate board rooms and small-business human-resource meetings.

Additional difficulties arise for businesses because staff of different ages or in different fields see work attire and its value very differently.

For instance, millennials feel that dressing up for work improves their performance and makes them more confident, according to a poll by Ranstad staffing firm, while about 40 percent of them still have been told to dress more professionally by managers. More senior workers are split on whether their attire makes them better workers, the survey found.

Varied approaches to remote grooming

The dress-for-success belief is echoed by a survey of 1,000 remote workers by CouponFollow, which found that a whopping 80 percent of remote workers who dressed for their day in business-professional, business-casual and smart-casual attire were 10 percent more likely to feel productive than those who dressed in gym clothes.

More formal dressers were 30 percent more likely to feel productive than those who stayed in their pajamas, according to the survey. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were more productive, just that they felt more productive.

The survey had other interesting workday prep findings, some of which may have to be taken with a grain of salt. As every office has a prankster, so does every survey. When it comes to showering, for instance, 57 percent of respondents said they showered before the workday, 25 percent during the workday, 12 percent only for video calls. About 7 percent said they never showered.

In that vein, 64 percent said they put on underwear before the workday, 20 percent during, 9 percent only for video calls and, yes, 7 percent never put on underwear.

While 69 percent of women claimed to put on a bra either before or during the workday, 22 percent said they only put on a bra for video calls. Thirty-eight percent of women said they put on makeup even if they wouldn’t be seen that day, and 41 percent only if they had a video call.

As for personal grooming, the numbers were: 33 percent before the workday, 18 percent during, 32 percent only if on a video call and 17 percent never.

These polling numbers take into account all workers and seem to demonstrate that for some remote employees, loose dress guidelines, at least, may not be a bad idea. Still, most upscale, white-collar firms have not made the move to anything official.

Mirroring clients’ attire

The New York law firm Kramer Levin has not explicitly updated its dress-code policy for remote work, but “lawyers know the importance of how they look,” said Jennifer Manton, the firm’s chief marketing and business development officer. “We reminded people that things aren’t different just because they’re working from home. Just because they’re not coming into the office, nothing about the work they’re doing has changed.”

Manton said the key is that lawyers should mirror their clients with their attire. That doesn’t mean if the client is vacationing in Aruba, the lawyer should also wear a bathing suit and flip-flops, but they probably don’t need to go full suit-and-tie.

One move Kramer Levin did make for their attorneys working remotely is to create branded virtual backgrounds. For court appearances, some judges require such backgrounds — they also eliminate the concern of seeing expensive erotic art hanging on the wall behind the lawyer. Another move the firm made was to instruct their lawyers on how to be good hosts on teleconferences.

“We worked with them on best practices around conversation,” Manton said

A challenge that Manton sees coming for law firms is how to respond when “we’re still remote, but a client will be in a bullpen. You can’t [create your policies] in a vacuum. You have to talk to clients and customers about what they need.”

At asset-management firm PGIM, Lizzie Lowe, a director of communications, says that while the company doesn’t have a mandatory dress code, it has worked with Atlanta-based communications coach Kelly Mullin to improve the way staff present on camera.

Lowe said that when it comes to investment managers and analysts, “the dress part is the easiest.”

“It’s the things people don’t think about,” she said. “People have gotten accustomed to children and dogs wandering into meetings.”

Lowe says they also offer advice when PGIM’s people are part of a big conference being handled remotely. For women, the recommendation is a blouse of a solid color. For men, a tie is optional.

Lowe emphasizes that how professional you look in a teleconference meeting goes a long way to what people think of you.

“And you only get one shot to make that first impression,” she said.

Inspiring HR, A U.S.-based provider of employee management services to small businesses, recommends on its website that organizations consider these points when setting a dress code and videoconferencing policies for their remote workforce:

  • Promote remote working as a benefit that allows for hours and standard dress code flexibility as long as performance deadlines are being met. Be clear about expectations for attendance and professional presentation for virtual meetings
  • Create a remote work policy addendum to your employee handbook which includes standards for home office space, technology, Wi-Fi and mobile device protocols, availability expectations, and dress code options
  • Consider a video-conferencing policy that addresses camera use etiquette including beverage and food consumption, parameters for background settings, and professional attire and grooming. Include safety language for accessing virtual “meetings” on the road and limiting outside distractions while conducting both internal and external calls
  • Rethink gender neutrality when adopting organizational work attire. Does your current dress code policy contain different standards for men vs. women? Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, and courts have ruled that gender specific limitations for dress codes and grooming standards where one sex imposes a greater burden is discriminatory.

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