What are you wearing for work today? Just checking, because I think there’s a good chance that, whatever it is, it will be significantly less formal than what you were wearing, say 10 years ago.
Karen Mercer, Zurich’s head of human resources on the Isle of Man, says: ‘It’s really interesting because, even just in my lifetime of work, the expectations of how you dress in the office have changed so much.’
Zurich has formalised the trend for more casual dressing across its whole group. Three years ago they introduced a ‘dress for your day’ policy which allows staff to come into work, wearing whatever they think is suitable, and comfortable, for them in their role.
Zurich on the Isle of Man has around 300 employees but, because most of their interaction with clients is through email or Live Chat, few are customer facing so there is no concern about having to wear a uniform, or brand identity, or conform to a certain dress code.
On the other hand, how do they set a standard for people working in the office? Because there is obviously a limit to how casual people can be.
Karen says: ‘“Dress for your day” is very much about trusting people to wear appropriate attire for the role that they’re doing that day.
‘If they’re sitting at their desks, plugging into a spreadsheet, and aren’t interacting with customers or clients, there’s no point in sitting there in a really uncomfortable suit and, actually, what we’re more interested in is the contribution of that person, rather than what they look like. It’s very much about what they’re delivering.’
Karen has been at Zurich for nine years and she says: ‘Definitely, when we were in Athol Street, I would probably have worn tailored trousers or a skirt and tights and I would never have worn any stretchy type of trousers or jeans or anything like that.
‘I also really like wearing dresses but I don’t wear a fitted style anymore. I tend to wear something more relaxed, like a tea dress.
‘I think it’s definitely what you deliver rather than how you dress. But I think I’ve got boundaries – I wouldn’t wear sports trainers in the office.’
Yvette Scales, human resources business partner at Zurich, is wearing jeans and a jumper. She says: ‘This is what I tend to wear but you will still get people who will wear a suit, smart trousers and a shirt because that’s how they feel comfortable.
‘I definitely didn’t come in straightaway [in casual wear]. I kept just to our charity Dress Down Days every Friday to start with.
‘It’s certainly taken time to transition from dressing in a business style to wearing my jeans every day. It’s almost like your wardrobe’s merged. Your work wardrobe and they’re now starting to mingle and blend because you’re wearing your jeans to work, not just at the weekends.’
When it comes to their male colleagues, Karen says: ‘They rarely wear tailored trousers anymore, probably something more like the chino style with an open neck shirt with a jumper over it.
‘When we have a board meeting our senior leaders will put their jackets on.’
Human resources consultant Elaine Codona is managing director of Solasta Coaching.
She says: ‘Dress code doesn’t drive the culture but it forms part of the culture.
‘You can get an understanding of what the culture is within an organisation when you walk in and see how they’re dressed.
‘Dress code, and the way people address each other in conversation, are often linked. The more formal the dress, the more formal the conversations are, and this often ties into status and hierarchy.
‘Some of the financial services companies, though not many now, are still suited and booted. Wearing ties is considered old fashioned, part of a somewhat antiquated culture nowadays.
‘Many men will still wear a formal jacket but have dropped the tie and instead go for an open-necked shirt. If it’s a more casual office then you’ll tend to see men wearing polo shirts or a nice jumper.’
Dress code, she goes on, is part of how our society has changed overall. She says: ‘If you think about going to work after leaving school, many years ago, we were indoctrinated into “you have to dress smartly (in a suit or dress) and in such a way to fit into society”.
‘Schools are beginning to change too with some questioning the need to enforce the wearing of uniform.
‘Many young people no longer own suits or “proper shoes”. They are more likely to be seen in casual shoes or trainers.’
The legal profession is one area where you might still expect to find a certain amount of dress formality – and a lot of black.
Kathryn Clough is a partner at legal practice Callin Wild and is president of Isle of Man Law Society.
When I meet her she is wearing a smart black trouser suit with a bright red blouse adding what fashion writers like to call ‘a pop of colour’.
So is black still what most women in the legal profession would choose to wear?
Kathryn says: ‘Yes, for us a lot of dark colour. It could be dark grey or a lot of blue.
‘If you’re going to court, I would expect it to be a black suit, or dark grey, something like that.
‘I may wear brighter shirts but for my suits tend to be black.
‘But then when you get into summer it may well be that you can wear a brighter smart dress and you can still be smart but definitely more colourful.
‘I’ve been in the profession for 25 years now and I think there’s definitely been a change.
‘Whereas it would have been smart office wear every day, that shift has probably gone to having the casual dress down days once a week or once a month.
‘And, although it’s rare in the legal profession, I do know of at least one legal practice that does “dress for your day”.’
The difference of course, with the law is that, quite apart from the formality of going to court, clients often want, and need, to speak to their advocates face to face.
Kathryn says: ‘I would say there’s still an expectation that you are suitably dressed to see clients. There’s generally some expectation of smart office attire.
‘For men, historically, that would have been the three-piece suit. It’s fairly rare to see that now and the approach to wearing a tie has definitely become more relaxed.
‘I would potentially say that was generational.
‘You’re less likely to see the older end of the generation without a tie but even younger advocates, if they were going to meet a client, would probably put a tie on.
‘I would say, for the legal profession, it’s still formal but maybe that formality is changing.’