Years ago, if someone was wearing jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt in an office, you might have thought they'd ended up in the wrong building. Today, suits and dress pants are the exception, not the rule – and dress codes aren't the only thing that have gone casual. Instead of stuffy cubicles and stark conference rooms, offices now tend to opt for open layouts with lounge areas, colorful collaborative spaces and fun activities in the break room.
While some may decry the "death of professionalism," many organizations have found that these relaxed standards are actually an advantage. Chris Stewart, president and co-founder of Pocket Radar, says a more casual environment fosters better creativity and teamwork.
"Making employees feel more comfortable at work leads to better efficiency and better communications, the key aspects [of this environment] being acceptance and inclusiveness," Stewart said.
Eliza Morrison, CEO and co-founder of on-demand tutoring platform Nerdly, agreed, noting that comfort in workplace attire and appearance can be especially helpful.
"Sometimes standard 'professional wear' can box in those who like to dress creatively," she told Business News Daily. "Allowing people to push the envelope with their workwear, while still maintaining societal norms, opens the door to individuality and creativity. If someone feels good and at home in what they are wearing, then they will probably be more confident in their work output."
"A person's work capabilities are not affected by the tattoos or piercings they may have," added Ross Sapir, founder and president of Roadway Moving. "Casual attire allows all of my employees to be themselves, instead of making everyone into something they are not. People are different, and a button-down shirt or a suit is not for everyone. I celebrate the fact that all of my employees are different and are able to showcase this in the office." [Is your office dress code reasonable? Find out here.]
Maintaining professional standards in a casual workplace
Most employees understand that a relaxed dress code and culture isn't a free pass to look and act like a slob, or develop a disrespectful attitude. However, you may still find that some team members get a little too comfortable in the office.
In an article on Entrepreneur.com, Dana Brownlee, founder of training and consulting firm Professionalism Matters, writes that this new standard of "casual" professionalism in the corporate world – texting during meetings, sending internal communications filled with typos, showing up late to appointments, etc. – can erode a company's workplace image, especially with external clients.
"If you ever have non-office visitors, or a meeting with an outside client or partner, they might not understand the casual dress code [and environment]," added Morrison. "Due to formalities, outsiders could take this as offensive, and derive a negative feeling about the business as a result."
Based on advice from our expert sources, here are a few ways to maintain and enforce professional standards while still allowing employees to feel comfortable at work.
1. Develop benchmarks for development and training.
A big part of maintaining professionalism in the office is to encourage professional development activities. Sapir said that his company requires his management team to complete a certain number of hours on development programs.
"Despite a very casual work environment, professional development still exists when it comes to seminars, workshops [and] training … for new and old employees alike," he said. "Everyone understands necessary business protocols and how to act professionally in the workspace."
2. Encourage ownership of work.
Morrison said she has found that the best way to maintain a standard of professionalism, no matter what the dress code is, is to encourage everyone to own their role in the work they do.
"Everyone has the opportunity to contribute their insight into what they do," she told Business News Daily. "I think if people maintain this pride in their job, they will inherently maintain a sense of professionalism. Communicating a common goal, encouraging everyone in achieving it, and helping everyone feel included, not just [like] a cog in the wheel – that is something that really motivates me."
3. Set the right expectations.
You may encourage a casual dress code on a normal day, but your company's standards of professional attire may vary depending on if clients are visiting the office or if employees are attending a conference.
"We have always had a relaxed dress code in our office environment because we do not routinely come into contact with our customers," said Jay Ewing, CEO of Bird Golf Academy. "[However], when we receive people for meting or go to meetings we expect our office staff to dress more formally, either in business attire or Bird Golf logoed apparel."
Stewart advised setting clear expectations and guidelines about different dress code situations – casual, business casual, formal, etc. – and trusting employees to adhere to them.
"Employees are capable of understanding the difference between working in the daily team environment and entertaining an outside client or attending an external business meeting," Stewart said. "Professionalism has many aspects, but it always comes down to building the right corporate culture that always holds people to the right standards."