Tara West has spent more than a decade styling Boston executives and businesspeople, with clients working in industries running the gamut from startups to technology to investment banking.
One common question from those disparate workers: What exactly does “business casual” mean in a hybrid working world? It’s particularly confounding for clients who traditionally have operated in a conservative suit-and-tie business environment, West says.
For many office workers prior to COVID-19, morning routines would go like this: Wake up, put on a suit, and go.
“It’s: What do I do? How do I dress? And how do I feel comfortable and show up in the right way?” says West, who runs an eponymous fashion styling company. “People get stumped, especially now, on what is too casual and what is right.”
Many employees, even in the most staid of corporate offices, have swapped pantsuits for jeans, dress shoes and heels for sneakers. Frasier Crane — the TV character known for his bicoastal buttoned-up work wear — swapped brogues for Allbirds sneakers and suit pants for jeans in recent ads heralding Frasier’s return to Boston. And many of the Top Places To Work companies have relaxed formal dress codes — if they even had a formal written code to begin with — as a perk for their existing workforce and future talent.
Beyond wanting to remain an attractive place to work, however, the shift toward a less-formal dress code allows employers to be more inclusive of gender-fluid workers, those with disabilities, and a multigenerational workforce.
Before the pandemic, Guimel DeCarvalho, chief diversity officer and vice president of people and culture at Wayside Youth & Family Support Network in Framingham, wore a suit to work every day. Nowadays she says she’s more likely to come into the office in khakis. As a behavioral health nonprofit, Wayside has never been the most formal of workplaces. The organization operates a residential campus, where the dress code has been less about business formality and more about safety, requiring closed-toe shoes and clothes employees could move around in. Before the pandemic, the administrative team and managers in the office were expected to be dressed more formally. But those expectations have changed.
“I actually haven’t worn my suit in three years,” DeCarvalho says. “With the pandemic, everyone being at home, that expectation kind of drifted away and has not come back.”
In addition to relaxing the dress code, Wayside has formalized its dedication to inclusivity: It added natural hairstyles to an antidiscrimination category alongside its LGBTQIA-affirming policy, which spells out that it’s against Wayside policy to discriminate regarding anyone’s gender representation. Incorporating natural hairstyles was an “easy change,” DeCarvalho says, and one that was made prior to Massachusetts becoming the 18th state to make discrimination illegal based on natural and protective hairstyles such as braids or Bantu knots. “That’s just part of how we approach an inclusionary environment.”
While dress codes have historically been written down to alleviate confusion — such as when women entered the professional office environment, often as secretaries — they’re becoming much less common as formal written documents, says Deirdre Clemente, a history professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style. “Dress is now a variable in workplace culture in ways they couldn’t have imagined a century ago,” Clemente says. “It’s individuality, personal expression, ethnicity, sexual identity. . . . Those are protected spaces.”
The United States was already on its way toward broader social acceptance of casual dress. The global athleisure market is expected to be valued at $662.6 billion by 2030, according to Grand View Research. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated the acceptance, Clemente says. “The pandemic’s influence on our wardrobe is profound,” she says. “The last vestiges of the line between ‘work clothes’ and ‘home clothes’ just died.”
While Boston has traditionally been a bastion of conservative clothing, casual dress is even coming to some of the more buttoned-up industries. As one example, FBinsure, a Taunton insurance agency with 11 offices across Southeastern Massachusetts, is amid a bit of an inner-office shakeup, says Nikki Hughes, marketing communications director.
For years, the agency required professional dress — no jeans, no sneakers. The company would call for $5 donations to charity for the privilege of wearing jeans on the last Friday of each month. But since returning to the workplace after the pandemic, the agency has allowed a “best judgment” policy inside the office. Sneakers? Sure. Jeans? Just not ones with rips, please.
Beyond allowing employees to be more comfortable, pivoting to a more casual office atmosphere is a benefit FBinsure can tout when advertising itself to younger workers. Attracting and retaining talent is key in an industry that skews older, Hughes says.
“There is still a level of professionalism, but it is more allowing people to be their authentic selves, instead of making them feel that they have to put on a facade for eight hours a day,” Hughes says. “People don’t need to be in suit coats and button downs in order to professionally represent the company.”
Andy Starr, the CEO of commercial food service company Boston Showcase, can’t imagine putting on a tie to go to the office every day like he did before the pandemic. While field dress hasn’t changed for the folks making deliveries on construction sites, things have relaxed in the Newton office — especially on days when employees aren’t likely to see customers. A decade ago, a shirt and tie was the norm; these days, it’s more jeans and a company polo.
“The most important thing is to be presentable, and also know your customer,” Starr says. “If you’re eating with a chef in a kitchen, it’s probably not as important to be dressed up than if you’re meeting with a general manager of a hotel.”
Starr doesn’t see it as necessarily a positive or a negative for an office culture to allow more relaxed dress. “I just think people are looking for flexibility, and wanting to be comfortable,” he says. “Flexibility, and being accommodating to employees and their needs — that is what ultimately leads to happier employees and a more productive and successful business.”
Like many tech companies, car-buying website and research company CarGurus has never had a dress code. But CarGurus takes things a step further by explicitly having a “no dress code dress code” written down as formal policy. “It’s 100 percent people’s choice,” says Ciara Gogan, senior manager for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. “We’re not dictating how people dress, because dress codes can present barriers for people with disabilities, and those from expanded genders.”
Keeping a “best judgment” policy lets CarGurus employees come to work as their full selves. “I feel very comfortable dressing up or dressing down. That’s where we want people to be,” Gogan says. “I don’t feel any compunction to conform to any societal norms around how a woman should dress. It’s just really important for people . . . to express themselves fully as they are.”
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