Work From Home? Wear Whatever You Want

A recent WSJ story set off a bit of backlash by suggesting that people working from home should eschew wearing sweatpants while doing so and instead choose stylish outfits that, when put together, can cost upwards of $1,000.

That advice is of a feather with the general, long-lived suggestion that those who work from home should get dressed every day to avoid falling into an unprofessional mindset. You approach work differently, the thinking goes, if you’re wearing clothes more in line with a traditional office than an outfit that is more appropriate for sipping coffee in your living room.

It’s not bad, as what clothes you wear certainly impacts your mood and attitude. There’s a large amount of real estate, though, between a $15 pair of Target sweatpants and a $1,000 outfit, so that suggestion seems less about improving the productivity of the remote worker and more about the WSJ wanting to appear hip and stylish, showing off the latest fashion to create an aspirational mindset in its readership.

There’s also the fact that such guidance goes against one of the main advantages of working from home, which is that it saves the worker a lot of money they would otherwise spend. These people don’t have to buy train tickets or pay for gas for their commute into the office, they don’t have to pay for meals – either regular or occasional – while away from their own refrigerator and coffee machine.

Working from home still carries with it a fair amount of stigma in the minds of corporate executives and managers. They often cite fears that remote workers are slacking off, napping when they should be working and generally displaying a lack of commitment to the company.

Instead, productivity rises sharply when people are allowed to work from home. If problems emerge it’s more likely because the worker is feeling shunned and disengaged from the community of coworkers, which is as much the fault of the employer and the systems they’ve set up as anything else.

Chief among those attitudes are those involving clothing. We are now a nation of yoga pants aficionados, and younger people in particular are breaking down the stigmas that used to be attached to wearing comfortable clothing in professional settings. That’s not to say that a Join.me video conference call is the best place to be wearing your vintage “Underachiever” Bart Simpson shirt, but a casual shirt isn’t going to raise too many eyebrows these days.

It’s a situation where all the professional advice in the world matters less than what feels right for the individual. If jeans and a button down shirt help get someone in the right frame of mind to be operating at their best, so be it. If it’s a shirt, tie and slacks, go for it. If they’re cool in sweatpants or shorts, that’s fine. They can make different calls on different days depending on the situation, including calls and meetings, but they can have a general idea of what works for them, one that can evolve over time.

Certainly, though, a single $1,000 outfit isn’t necessary, nor is it the kind of expense that’s in keeping with the cost saving philosophy of remote work. If anything, by shifting people’s attention that far away from their work and onto their clothing has the potential to hamper productivity, not increase it.

There’s growing evidence around “decision fatigue” and advice to reduce the number of decisions made in a day to save mental power for those that are most important. So telling someone to spin cycles putting together an outfit that is more appropriate for a special event than working from a home office is counterintuitive to productivity goals since you’re distracting the worker on something that really doesn’t do much good. It’s better that they have a small number of clothing items to choose from than to increase the amount of options to choose from.

Don’t feel pressured to dress to the nines every day of the week when working from home. Find something appropriate and stick with it, focusing instead on the kinds of decisions and activities that matter, not on making sure you have the right set of cufflinks for the shirt you’ve picked out.

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