On working from home dress codes

man wearing blue suit

About two months ago, we began one of the largest experiments on work and productivity in recent memory. Within the realm of knowledge work, where working from home is most prevalent, we are asked to turn our previous havens of relaxation, comfort, and family time into battle stations whizzing with Zoom meetings and email checks. I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely difficult to separate church and state. I am unfocused at best in my work and detached from family in walks or meal time. Many prominent thinkers in the productivity space have discussed these issues at length. Many are clearer thinkers and writers than yours truly. But many have perhaps forgotten or unkowingly downsized the importance of self-presentation in establishing new habits.

It seems that we have subconsciously accepted the narrative of clothing brands in their new ads: “Here are the best sweatpants, slippers and tee-shirts for working from home!"(some of the most egregious examples: 1, 2, 3) While I recognize their market incentive to maintain business, it has created a kind of pathos around the pandemic among other knowledge workers I know who relish in this “wear whatever you want,” anti-dress-code. But I dissent. In fact, I decided that I would wear pants and something with buttons up top every day of the work week, and that I wouldn’t touch or think about work until the last button is fastened.

A recent article in May’s edition of The Atlantic called for the eventual destruction of the office dress code as we know it. The author convincingly argues that norms of dress have been restrictive in the past, and perhaps contained a touch of racism or classism. Perhaps some might argue that striving to look a certain way for work destracts from the individual qualities of the worker. I don’t buy it (and neither does Adam Tschorn of the LA times). No, I am not advocating for some Mad Men-esque edict of uniformity (although the qualityt of style in the show is, in my opinion, masterful) that is nostalgic for some idealized condition of society. Rather, I am arguing in favor of effort. Sweatpants at work mean you put in zero effort. Mark Zuckerberg reportedly wore sweatpants to meetings where he intentionally wanted to humiliate his interviewers. The irony is that slipping on sweatpants takes the same amount of time as buttoning khakis or jeans, at least for men. My fiance agrees with me on this— maybe hair and makeup add time over the sweatpant approach, but not that much more time. At the least, putting in effort to your dress during this time might give you confidence and a sense of control that we crave as creatures of habit.

What if putting on that belt or that shirt was like priming your workout habit by simply putting on your running shoes, or hailing a cab? These are commonly labeled as “hacks” but should really be seen as prequels to the habit itself. These are like the appetizers for whatever habit you want to take home for dinner. Want to establish a morning writing habit? Make putting on your “work clothes” and sitting down, outlining or even (my personal “appetizer”) turning on a banker’s lamp to show yourself what “writing you” looks like in action.

Above all, let’s face it: we want to relish in the ability to wear sweatpants when we’ve totally clocked out. We want the feeling of putting them on to trigger thoughts of a good movie, book, or family meal —not of a full work day ahead.

COVID-19 Relief Worker

Epidemiologist, Pre-Medical Student