HR Headaches: Virtual Work Attire — What to Do if Office Casual Has Gone Too Far

With remote work becoming the norm, so has casual work attire. But when is work-casual a little too casual?

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The growth of remote work has changed the way we perform our jobs and interact with each other and customers, probably for good. There may be as many companies encouraging workers to keep working from home as there are those who ask their staff return to on-site employment. The reality may be the future of work is a hybrid: some remote workers, some on-site, and others that mix both consistently or as needed. Say hello to office casual attire, and farewell to suits and ties.

Many employers are seeing increases in employee satisfaction with full or partial remote work. A recent survey found more than half of employees want to work from home, reporting reduced stress for them and fewer absences and sick days for the company. Almost half of workers suggested they’d take a pay cut to work remotely. The model benefits businesses and employees, but it’s not without its hiccups along the way. Remote attire often pushes the limits of what’s acceptable.

Every day is (too) casual Friday?

One of the biggest fears employers have about remote workers is reduced accountability. Assuring work is being performed can be tracked as you move to a remote model — frequently with tech. Other areas of accountability, like professionalism, presentation and interaction with others, may need a more hands-on approach.

Work-from-home casual attire works for most employees, but for some, it’s a license to be slovenly. We’ve all seen that coworker in cartoon jammies with hair looking like a wind-tunnel victim. They may be terrific performers (or just so-so), but their grooming and attire scream unprofessional. It’s important to remind staff that even though they’re wearing fuzzy Totoro slippers, they’re still at work.

Some rules have to apply to work-from-home casual. For business, it’s important to outline what’s expected before an online meeting ends embarrassingly when a colleague spills coffee and jumps up to reveal they’re not wearing pants (we’ve all seen the videos).

Setting the stage for on-camera casual attire

Depending on the level of interaction with others, you’ll want to create guidance that outlines who should wear what and when. If dealing with customers, the same dress code for in-house should apply to remote. Lawyers meeting remotely with clients should be in the same attire they would wear in the office to demonstrate professionalism and gravitas. Imagine taking a telemedicine call with a doctor in their pajamas: unless it was a 3:00 am emergency call, it wouldn’t inspire confidence. The same rule applies to clients.

Depending on the level of interaction with others, you’ll want to create guidance that outlines who should wear what and when.

If client interactions don’t require a starched shirt, the typical dress code for personal meetings should apply. Most employers have already outlined this guidance for their staff and client interactions typically aren’t problematic. The glitches seem to come up more frequently with interoffice interactions.

When employees connect individually or in meetings, the temptation to wear casual attire often goes too far. Some employees will complain, but too often will not. They’ll simply be uncomfortable, cutting the session as short as possible, and diminishing whatever potential benefit the meeting held. You may find employees have a “don’t call Pat unless you want to see all that” list circulating. Rather than work around counter-productive behavior, create guidance that applies to all staff.

Video call etiquette 101

On video calls even though you can see a small image of yourself in the corner, your colleagues see your face the size of their screen. If they’re looking at your on their phone, they probably won’t notice that crumb in your beard. If they’re looking at you on a large screen, it might be a distraction. Keep a hand mirror nearby to check for broccoli between your teeth before you log on.

We’ve all been on video calls with someone who’s wearing a hat, and it makes us wonder why. Bad hair days happen: a headband or ponytail is a better option if it’s long enough. If not, run a comb through and do your best.

Outdoor clothing is not optional: if you wouldn’t wear it to work, you shouldn’t wear it online — even if it’s only from the waist up. Unless it’s pajama day at work, no one wants to see your Spiderman onesie. Your company policy should be that even though the dress code is relaxed, some semblance of professionalism is required, especially for those participating in online calls. You could set the standard at collared shirts (even polos) instead of t-shirts as a minimum requirement, or go higher up the couture ladder. Once you set guidelines on casual attire, remember to enforce them equally. Unless there’s an unexpected emergency call, employees should adhere to a level of professionalism, even if it’s relaxed.

Graphic graphics

For many companies graphic tees are the norm; for others, they’re a constant pain-point. They run the gamut from cute and cuddly to vulgar and offensive with everything in between. Some organizations prohibit any graphic tees at work, allowing the only company logos or wording on premises or when representing the business.

Some have found political speech on graphic tees blurred the line for their organization with the National Labor Relations Board when it comes to protected concerted activity. An overarching policy that allows only for company graphics may be a best practice for most businesses. Your policy can outline that to assure no one wears clothes that contain profanity or disturbing images, all graphic tees are prohibited.

Fair warning

Some employees never participate in online calls or meetings. They may be in yoga clothes or sweats all day and you’d never know. If you do have to interact with these staffers, it’s only fair to notify them in advance if they’ll be needed online. A quick “I have to video call you in 5 minutes,” gives them time to put on something camera-worthy.

Why policies around casual attire matters

Though your employees are working from home, you have the right to set minimum standards for professionalism on the clock.

While employees may be just as productive in athleisure wear as a three-piece suit when working remotely, when they interact with others there should be some level of professionalism. Even the most cutting-edge organization has its limits when it comes to ‘too casual’ for public consumption. Though your employees are working from home, you have the right to set minimum standards for professionalism on the clock.

Too laid back is a distraction: when employees are busy trying to read the fine print on their colleague’s tee shirt, they’re not paying attention to the meeting. When they’re gossiping about what’s going on with Jesse’s grooming, they’re not taking that colleague seriously. Uniformity isn’t necessarily required, but clothes and grooming practices that don’t distract from the work are.

Once you’ve set a policy on casual attire, it’s important for managers to keep an eye out during meetings, and even occasionally check in to make sure employees are sticking to the guidance. It may be an adjustment at first, but they’ll navigate their way out of workout gear and into work-wear quickly.

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