Casual Culture at Work – Is Your Office too Formal?

formality can be the enemy of productivity...

Do your staff get to wear their own clothes to work? Can they chat through the day, or are they encouraged to stay quiet? Can they take a quick five minute break or two to relax, or are they chained to their desk all day?

If you’ve built a company culture that rewards people for getting the best results, it seems unfair to insist that everyone works in the same way if some may perform better when their behaviour and environment isn’t controlled too rigidly.

A more relaxed culture may be what is needed to get the best out of staff. With incentives encouraging staff to perform, rather than rules and regulations keeping them in line, a little more freedom can be a wonderful thing.

Changing traditions

Casual culture in office environments has its roots in the 50s and 60s – a period of all-around liberation, combined with a recession that meant employers were struggling for cheap ways to raise employee morale.

Hewlett-Packard started using Casual Fridays in the 50s and, combined with a rise in smart casual lines from brands like Levi’s, the workplace gradually became increasingly casual. Nowadays, more than a third of UK workplaces have a casual dress code all week round, with jeans and t-shirts replacing shirts and ties – usually for roles that aren’t physically customer-facing.

But it’s not just the dress code that is becoming more casual in the workplace. Attitudes are relaxing across the board in many workplaces, shown in the 1.5 million people choosing to work from home on a more flexible basis, and the fun of free food, table football and informal breakout spaces that dominate the public perception of hip young tech firms.

The benefits of going casual

A more casual dress code can have a real impact on a workforce. One that should absolutely be considered is the reduction in financial strain on employees. Research has found that employees spend an average of £104 per year on work clothes, while other, more sensationalist research estimates that this figure could be in the thousands for some – particularly for women.

And with an emphasis on high heels over flats, dresses over trousers, and requirements for makeup, many dress codes are actively discriminatory towards women, insisting on clothing that is more expensive, overtly sexualised or, in the case of heels, actively damaging to health and wellbeing. The easiest way to get rid of this example of workplace sexism is to get rid of the dress code.

It’s also good for morale if employees are comfortable and more relaxed – and aren’t feeling like they’re being judged on their appearance. A positive workplace culture that preaches self-expression, employee engagement and individuality is also greatly undermined if everyone has to wear a suit!

But a casual culture goes far beyond a dress code – and there are benefits to a more relaxed approach all around. While bosses don’t quite have to play the role of the entertainer, the trust and freedom that comes with relaxing the rules can be a great motivator – and the key to attracting a new generation of talent.

For example, as many as 14 million workers in the UK are crying out for flexible hours or the ability to work from home, rather than clocking in at nine and out again at five, with a supervisor breathing down their neck.

Research has also found that worker autonomy – when employees can make choices, and be held accountable for their decisions – can lead to greater productivity, workplace satisfaction, or both. However, despite this, some employers still insist upon greater monitoring, discipline and control of their employees – which is frustrating, infantilising, and leads to feelings of loss of identity.

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The extreme examples

When we talk about casual workplace cultures, it’s hard to keep images of office slides and free beers from your mind – something popularised by cutting-edge tech firms such as Google and Facebook.

Businesses such as these are built upon a creative mindset, encouraging staff to think outside the box to come up with new ideas, something that can be difficult when you’re sat in a cubicle – literally inside a box – all day.

These businesses try and take care of as many of their employees’ needs as possible – providing free food, dry cleaning, sleep pods, and gym memberships – so they can focus on work. However, it can backfire – when Google employees are effectively living at the office, this suddenly isn’t so casual, regardless of appearances.

These office perks may be very attractive, but they ultimately appear to be there to cushion the blow of a very high-pressure job, with Google and Amazon, as well as tech firms like Sandisk, maintaining incredibly high turnover rates.

The argument against casual culture

So does that mean a casual culture isn’t such a good idea? Arguments against autonomy and flexibility are fairly straightforward – with the UK’s office employees procrastinating away more than 12 hours every week, a little bit of monitoring, structure and discipline to keep people on task is by no means a bad thing.

While those in highly creative roles need time and space to think, is the same true of those in more rigid roles, such as telesales or administration? For these people, time away from the desk or phone is time spent not working.

There are also strong arguments to be made against a casual dress code. Clothes put us into a certain mindset, and wearing the same things at work as we do at home can make it hard for people to differentiate between the two, as fashion psychologist Dr. Karen Pine tells Forbes:

“When we put on an item of clothing it is common for the wearer to adopt the characteristics associated with that garment. A lot of clothing has symbolic meaning for us, whether it’s ‘professional work attire’ or ‘relaxing weekend wear’, so when we put it on we prime the brain to behave in ways consistent with that meaning.”

So casual clothes could be keeping people from getting into the mindset they need to get down to work. However, psychologists would also tell you that there’s no concrete, proven link between clothes and productivity – while evidence is there, it’s mostly fairly anecdotal. So what are you to do?

The middle ground

As with many aspects of working life, the best answer is often a compromise. You don’t have to allow your employees complete autonomy to set their own hours, take endless breaks or show up in flip flops, and you don’t have to provide an endless stream of free food and alcohol to keep your employees happy. You also don’t have to chain employees to their desks and insist on high heels to keep your staff looking presentable and working hard.

While many offices have taken the completely dressed down approach, business casual attire is still the standard for many across the UK – button-down shirts with smart jeans or chinos, with the added option of a blouse or casual dress for women, for example. Allowing tattoos and piercings to be on show alongside a more formal dress code is also slowly growing in acceptance.

When it comes to more casual behaviour, a light touch can go a long way towards improving morale or a positive culture. Provided their output isn’t affected, does it matter if your staff come back slightly late from lunch on a Friday, or have a chat across their desks? Letting go of the little things – like when staff take toilet breaks or grab a coffee, or allowing people to work from home when they’ve got a plumber coming round – goes a long way towards building trust and providing autonomy.