Power dressing: The effects of dress code on productivity

28 August 2015 Karan Vidal

From business formal to business casual, there have never been so many options for work dress codes. Is what you wear to work all about looking good in the mirror or can it help you achieve more?

When interviewing for a job or going to meet a prospect for the first time, you put your best foot forward. That includes making an effort with your clothes. Like it or not, most people make assumptions based on what you look like including your dress sense.

Impressions are formed within a few seconds and appropriate clothing forms part of this. Luckily you don’t have to be a fashionista or fashionmeister to get a job or a new client but how you look does reinforce your professionalism.

So after you’ve put the effort into looking the part for the interview or getting a new client it’s time to take a look at whether how you dress will make you better at your work.

Does casual gear mean casual thinking?

Casual work environments are ‘all the rage’. Business powerhouses like Google encourage informal office spaces. Google is said to have no dress codes for employees and interviewees. However, if the research is anything to go by, Google’s relaxed style when it comes to dress should mean less productivity. This is obviously not the case as Google is one of the most successful companies in the world.

All white coats are not the same

Mary Cassat in a white coat

The science behind how we dress and productivity is a result of research into how our clothes affect how we feel. A study called Enclothed Cognition from Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University found that subjects who wore a white coat were more focused. They also found a difference in focus by the type of white coat worn:

“Wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat, and compared to simply seeing or even identifying with a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat” Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky.

In short, respondents felt and acted like they had more authority when they were told that the white coat was a doctor’s coat. This, in turn, led them to be more confident in accomplishing tasks.

Power dressing (literally)

Somaghana Funchiemon

Another study was carried out by Professor Karen Pine from the University of Hertfordshire. She found that donning a superman t-shirt literally made her subjects believe they were stronger. Dressing like a super-hero had translated into more confidence and the belief that they could achieve more. Although there’s been no research into super-hero dressing in an office environment, this does give some food for thought. This could be just the excuse you need to introduce super-hero Fridays.

Professor Pine also saw the negative sides of the wrong types of clothes. Women who sat a maths exam in swimming costumes did not do as well as those who did the test wearing a jumper. Perhaps those wearing the swimming costume were too cold to concentrate or just thinking about diving into a lovely pool. Either way, Professor Pine explains that the right clothes make us happier and more confident.

Work on/work off

In the cult film the Karate Kid (the original) Mr. Miyagi trains Daniel son to wax on and wax off to get the best out of his performance. Just like in real life, you should be able to switch on and off from work to give your best.

Does wearing the same type of clothes in and out of work limit your ability to separate your home and work life? Wearing a t-shirt and jeans all week long and wearing them at the weekend could mean that there’s no distinction between the ‘work you’ and the ‘home you.’

Professor Pine thinks that wearing casual clothes leads to less focus, “When we put on an item of clothing it is common for the wearer to adopt the characteristics associated with that garment”.

The suggestion is to change into different types of clothes when you get home so you can turn off your ‘work mode’.

Suits you sir

The theory goes that you can achieve more if you wear work clothes as you’ll be more focused. The trouble is that the definition of ‘work clothes’ is different for most companies and individuals.

A typical and increasingly outdated concept of ‘proper’ work attire is a suit with a tie for men. A tie is a polarising piece of clothing. Sir Richard Branson’s disdain for ties is well-known. Just as one man’s poison is another man’s food, some perceive the tie as the icing on the cake to a well presented suit.

Some research shows that wearing more formal clothing, like suits makes people think more broadly.

Guys and gals in uniforms

The science says one thing about how formal dress could increase productivity. However, some very successful companies tell a different story. How about getting rid of the conundrum of what you should wear altogether and get a uniform?

We’re not talking about a Butlin’s Redcoat type ensemble but taking a leaf from these entrepreneurs book:

  • Mark Zuckerberg’s personal uniform is jeans and a hoodie (as he says it’s one less thing to think about).
  • Steve Jobs was famous for his black polo neck and jeans combo. Fashion designer, Michael Kors may use many colours in his designs but he’s rarely seen out of his trusty black t-shirt and black blazer.
  • Elizabeth Holmes is also a fan of the black polo neck and blazer as her go-to business outfit.

The jury may still be out on whether wearing certain types of clothes makes you more productive. The researchers are the first to admit that more studies need to be conducted in this area. What’s certain is that confidence affects performance. The more confident you feel in your clothes the more you’ll achieve. As Google, Apple and countless other companies show, ‘smart’ clothes don’t make the man or necessarily productivity.