The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. Despite the dislocation and immense challenges people have faced during the pandemic, many discovered a silver lining: the benefits of working remotely. But now things are starting to look right side up as many companies are starting to re-open their doors. Despite the rush to return to office normalcy, the idea that every worker needs to come into the office every day has been left in the pre-pandemic past. Some form of remote work is here to stay.
The shift toward remote work has also turned daily clothing choices inside out. In the shift to remote work, some workers soldiered on in their office uniform while others abandoned their professional look for more comfortable home attire. Workers likely tried every permutation of their wardrobe—moving from one extreme (suit and tie) to the other (sleepwear and athleisure). Many even tried the Zoom mullet (“Business on top, party on the bottom”), though the results are sometimes embarrassing.
With two years of working from home under our belts, there is still no clear solution for how to handle the work-from-home dress code. This choice is an important one—clothing choices are a critical component of how we think, behave, and interact with others. Research shows that clothes not only influence how colleagues perceive each other, but the clothing an employee chooses to wear can change how they think or feel during the course of a day. Thus, it is essential that companies and their workers think critically about the office dress code, and get it right. The good news is that there’s now clear guidance that companies, managers, and individual workers should consider in our new hybrid work reality.
A decade ago, one of us, along with Hajo Adam of Bath University, found that small changes to one’s wardrobe—such as a person putting on a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat in a lab or wearing a power suit in the office—can have profound effects, improving attention or increasing one’s sense of power. Those experiments led to the concept of enclothed cognition, which illustrates how clothing and its symbolic associations affect thought and behavior. Enclothed cognition explains why wearing a suit increases testosterone levels and wearing a nurse’s uniform increases empathy.
But it’s not just the attire itself that matters, the context is also key. While a suit can help someone feel powerful and respected at the office, it can make that same person feel out of place at a yoga class. But context is tricky when it comes to remote work. Because we can be both working on work tasks but sitting on our living room couch, remote work creates a tension between our professional and personal selves.
So, what should those working remotely wear to feel authentic, powerful and engaged while working? Past research suggests that professional office attire will win out, inspiring a sense of power and engagement. But those studies have the drawback of being conducted in a laboratory or office setting and in a pre-pandemic world.
To get a better answer to the remote work attire dilemma, we went into people’s homes, conducting two multi-day experiments where we randomly assigned more than 400 remote workers from across a wide range of industries to wear different types of attire during their remote workday. Some participants were directed to wear what they would wear to the office; others were told to wear what they would normally wear at home. We also studied the Zoom mullet, asking some participants to wear work attire on top and home attire on the bottom. We tested what happens when remote workers try out each of these three outfits over the course of three days, as well as what happens when they are randomly assigned to wear just one of the three outfits.
At the end of each day, workers reported three key psychological outcomes: authenticity, power, and engagement at work that day. When people feel authentic, they feel in alignment with their genuine self, and research shows that feelings of authenticity increase engagement at work. A sense of power is critical for helping people feel in control, confident, and focused. Engagement, in turn, benefits both employers and employees, improving involvement and productivity.
The findings from our experiments, which were recently published in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries were counterintuitive based on past research. But they highlight something novel about these pandemic times. Despite being lauded as the perfect pandemic attire, the Zoom mullet had no positive and mostly negative effects on feelings of authenticity, power, and engagement. Second, counter to past work, professional attire did not consistently increase power or engagement.
The clear winner from our findings is that home attire consistently improved both authenticity and engagement. Because workers felt more like themselves in their home attire, they were ultimately more engaged and productive at work that day.
Our research offers guidance to both remote workers and their companies. For remote workers facing a clothing conundrum, it appears that that the setting of work—the home—matters more for their engagement than the actual content of the work task in front of them. In our research, we coined a new phrase, enclothed harmony, to explain this effect: Clothing needs to be consistent with the setting in which it is worn.
Despite our findings, the Zoom mullet likely has its, albeit limited, place. Consider the context of remotely giving a talk to a professional audience; here the setting is more professional and less comfortable. One of us (Adam) routinely wears the Zoom mullet for these types of presentations. But as soon as the talk is over and the camera turned off, the business shirt quickly gets replaced with attire (a T-shirt) more consistent with the setting of home.
For companies wondering if they need to end the office dress code, our research suggests that’s not necessary. In fact, our work-from-home findings reinforce the need to think carefully about clothes and to recognize that context is what matters most. To help workers continue to bring their best selves to work, managers should encourage workers to pick clothes that fit where their work is being completed.
Erica Bailey is a doctoral student at Columbia Business School; Blaine Horton is a doctoral student at Columbia Business School; and Adam Galinsky is the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. He is the co-author of the best-selling book Friend & Foe.