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How the pandemic changed what it means to look ‘professional’ at work

In the first episode of the Hit the Ground Running podcast, we discuss evolving grooming standards—and the complicated calculations we make about how we look at work.

How the pandemic changed what it means to look ‘professional’ at work
[Source photos: olia danilevich/Pexels; Engin Akyurt/Pexels; Anthony Shkraba/Unsplash]

For those of us who were unexpectedly thrust into working from home a year ago, the biggest change in our work lives is likely in how we interact with our colleagues. Many of us have spent hours a day, everyday for over a year seeing (and being seen in) little boxes on Zoom screens.

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This systematic change, amid the additional stress of the pandemic, has had many of us greatly relaxing the meaning of business casual. But it’s not equal. As with many aspects of workplace communication, there are a lot of power dynamics at play, including race, gender, and experience level.

Some let their grooming standards slack, embracing longer, less-styled hair, sweats and lounge wear, or make-up free faces. But some women still feel the pressure to look more “professional,” whether from a fear of not being taken seriously or from cultural pressure.

Pre-pandemic, many women spent a significant additional amount of time and money on their appearance compared with their male counterparts, and not doing so came often at a professional cost. Some data suggests that pressure hasn’t gone away while we’ve been working from home. Sephora’s online sales for example were up 30% in 2020, while in China, revenues for other beauty industry retailers including Amazon, rose 20 to 30%.

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This pressure to look “put together,” coupled with caregiving duties, noisy roommates, and more, might be why 39% of women in a 2020 Harris poll said they turn off their video during virtual work meetings because they don’t like the way they look, compared to just 25% of men.

In the first episode of Fast Company‘s new podcast Hit the Ground Running, I joined hosts Christina Royster and Yasmin Gagne to talk about all of these topics. In our wide-ranging discussion we covered everything from: When we turn our cameras off (and why), how casual we are comfortable dressing (and how that varies from many of our male counterparts), how our grooming habits have changed (especially if and when we wear makeup), anxieties about our living spaces, blurring the personal and professional line, and how this extended time working remotely could change beauty standards in the future.

Listen to the full episode here:

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You can listen and subscribe to Hit the Ground Running on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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About the author

Kathleen Davis is Deputy Editor at FastCompany.com. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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