What to Wear When You Work at Home to Be Productive, According to

By Erica Bailey and C. Blaine Horton and Adam Galinsky 5 Minutes Read

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down. Despite the disruption and enormous challenges people have faced during the pandemic, many discovered a silver lining: the benefits of remote working. But now things are starting to look good as many businesses are starting to open their doors again. Despite the rush to return to the normal office environment, the idea that every employee should come to the office every day has been left behind in the pre-pandemic past. A form of remote working is now indispensable.

The shift to remote working has also turned everyday clothing choices inside out. In the shift to remote work, some employees continued in their office uniforms, while others abandoned their professional look for more comfortable home wear. Employees have probably tried every change to their wardrobe — from one extreme (suit and tie) to the other (nightwear and athleisure). Many even tried the Zoom-mul (“Business at the top, party at the bottom”), although the results are sometimes embarrassing.

With two years of working from home under our belt, there is still no clear solution for how to deal with the work from home dress code. This choice is an important one: clothing choices are a critical part of how we think, behave and interact with others. Research shows that clothing not only affects how colleagues see each other, but that the clothes an employee chooses to wear can also change how she thinking or feeling over the course of a day. It is therefore essential that companies and their employees think critically about the dress code in the office and implement it properly. The good news is that there are now clear guidelines for companies, managers and individual employees to consider in our new hybrid work reality.

Ten years ago, one of us, along with Hajo Adam of the University of Bath, discovered that small changes in 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, improve attention or increase a person’s sense of power. Those experiments led to the concept of cloaked cognition, which illustrates how clothing and its symbolic associations influence thoughts and behavior. Dressed cognition explains why wearing a suit increases testosterone levels and wearing a nurse’s uniform increases empathy.

But it’s not just the clothes themselves that count, the context is also key. While a suit can help someone feel empowered and respected in the office, it can make that same person feel out of place during a yoga class. But context is tricky when it comes to remote working. Since we can work on work tasks as well as sitting on the couch in the living room, remote working creates a tension between our professional and personal selves.

So, what should those who work remotely wear to feel authentic, empowered and engaged while working? Past research suggests that professional office wear will win and instill a sense of power and involvement. But those studies have the disadvantage of being conducted in a lab or office setting and in a pre-pandemic world.

To better answer the remote workwear dilemma, we entered people’s homes and conducted two multi-day experiments where we randomly assigned more than 400 remote workers from a wide variety of industries to produce different types of clothing. wear during their remote workday. Some participants were instructed 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, where we asked some participants to wear work clothes on the top and home clothes on the bottom. We tested what happens when remote workers try on each of these three outfits over the course of three days, and what happens when they’re randomly assigned to wear only one of the three outfits.

At the end of each day, employees reported three key psychological outcomes: authenticity, strength, and engagement at work that day. When people feel authentic, they feel aligned with their real selves, and research shows that feelings of authenticity increase engagement at work. A sense of power is critical to helping people feel in control, confident and focused. In turn, engagement benefits both employers and employees, boosting engagement and productivity.

The findings of our experiments, recently published in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries were counterintuitive based on previous research. But they highlight something new about these pandemic times. Despite being hailed as the perfect pandemic apparel, the Zoom mullet had no positive and, above all, negative effects on feelings of authenticity, strength and commitment. Second, unlike previous work, professional attire did not consistently increase power or involvement.

The clear winner of our findings is that homewear consistently improved both authenticity and engagement. Because employees felt more like themselves in their home clothes, they ended up being more engaged and productive at work that day.

Our research provides guidance to both telecommuters and their companies. For teleworkers faced with a dress problem, it seems that the setting of the work – the home – is more important for their involvement than the actual content of the work task in front of them. In our research, we came up with a new expression, shrouded harmonyto explain this effect: Clothing should be consistent with the setting in which it is worn.

Despite our findings, the Zoom mullet probably has its, albeit limited, place. Consider the context of giving a lecture remotely 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 once the conversation is over and the camera is turned off, the business shirt is quickly replaced by clothes (a T-shirt) more in keeping with the atmosphere of home.

For companies wondering whether they should end the dress code in the office, our research suggests it isn’t necessary. In fact, our work-from-home findings reinforce the need to think carefully about clothing and recognize that context matters most. To help employees get the most out of themselves to work, managers should encourage employees to choose clothes that fit where their work is done.

Erica Bailey is a graduate student at Columbia Business School; Blaine Horton is a graduate 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.

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