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Heading Back to the Office: What to wear back to the workplace

As some of us move towards hybrid work arrangements after more than a year of being confined to work-from-home arrangements, many are left asking, ‘what do I wear to work now?’. The pandemic hasn’t only changed the way we see the workplace, it’s also altered the norms of office etiquette.  Gone are the days of court shoes and dull office wear – after months spent in shorts and comfy loungewear, employees are increasingly looking towards business wear with a casual, comfortable edge. 

According to Stitch Fix, ‘clients want to scale back on sweats, and dress up a little’. Their findings reported an increase in occasion wear sales, accessories and requests for workwear. It’s evident that we’ve gotten a little bored with perpetually being in lounge wear and sweatpants after 2020. As the economy picks up, many professionals are looking to spruce up their closet and update their back-to-office wardrobe. 

Yet, the eagerness to dress up and indulge in retail therapy has also revealed a shift in office wear trends. 58% of men said that they would dress more comfortably upon returning to the office; 39% of women also said the same. Additionally, this pent-up excitement surrounding dressing has also encouraged more people to take bolder approaches in terms of their fashion choices. This has certainly presented an interesting challenge for apparel companies trying to strike the balance between comfort and chic. 

So, what items are coming in hot for the new future of hybrid work? More importantly, what does this new era of ‘Flexible Work Fashion’ mean for office wear? 

Finding the Balance: Presentable but not preppy

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The onset of remote work following the Covid-19 crisis has introduced an unprecedented vulnerability into our work lives. For the first time, we saw slightly less professional versions of our co-workers. From interrupted Zoom calls to catching coworkers attending remote meetings in pyjamas, working from home has fundamentally changed the way we view and relate to our colleagues. This has translated to how we expect others to dress as we gradually return to the workplace. 

As aptly put across by a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) interviewee, ‘Now that I’ve seen my colleagues and clients in very casual attire, it’s hard to unsee that’. With partners and clients opting for more casual and comfortable dress codes, ironically, keeping to a stiff suit and tie might actually make one look oddly out of place at the office. This has created a sense of anxiety for both businesses and employees alike. On one hand, keeping to traditional workplace dress codes is an important signaler of professionalism and pristine company image. On the other hand, times have changed and employees aren’t particularly keen on completely returning to the pre-pandemic status quo. 

In response, it seems that opting for a ‘Presentable, but not preppy’ approach to dressing might be the best compromise. Local retailers in Singapore have shifted their workwear focus in this direction. For example, Asian retailers such as Uniqlo and Yacht21 have launched presentable home wear options suitable for hopping on video calls at home or heading out to the local mart for groceries after a remote workday. Another example includes popular women’s apparel retailer, The Editor’s Market, which recently launched their new collection aimed at allowing women to ‘dress up, not at the cost of comfort’. 

This trend in the fashion industry towards more versatile workwear options is not unique to Singapore. Apparel companies are increasingly positioning their products as ‘work-from-home essentials’. Universal Standard has pushed their collection of work blouses and collared shirts ‘geared toward women who are having to conduct video conference calls with clients or their coworkers’. The company has also offered attractive incentives to shoppers to build their ‘work-from-home wishlist’. Additionally, Dockers, which ‘helped spawn the concept of business casual, is adding more stretch to its classic chinos’ (WSJ). It’s evident that this trend towards business casual reflects the global consumer market’s preference for fashion that can fit the new normal of alternating between home and office. 

Changing Perspectives: Does ‘Dress for success’ still exist?

We’ve all heard the quote, ‘Dress for success’. This old saying has long ingrained into us the importance of presentation and personal grooming at the workplace. Argument goes that when you dress well, you feel well and it translates into your work. Yet it’s been found that dress-down days (‘Casual Fridays’) actually serve as a morale booster for employees. Dress-down days are perceived as a benefit that ‘fosters a sense of community… (by allowing employees) a little more personal expression’ (WSJ). 

After an immensely disruptive year, ensuring that employees are comfortable and encouraged to return to the workplace is of prime importance as businesses start to shift their employees onto hybrid work systems. Forcing employees to suddenly return to the pre-pandemic ‘formal normal’ can be counterproductive since employees take time to adjust back to on-site workplace environments. While seemingly a small gesture, allowing more flexibility in terms of attire indicates to employees that their comfort and well-being is being taken into consideration. 

While it isn’t desirable for employees to show up to work in pyjamas and joggers, businesses can simply relax existing dress-codes by applying general ‘Casual Friday’ rules to the rest of the work week (perhaps with special exceptions for important meetings with partners and clients). Afterall, why not? It’s a free and effective way to involve employees and keep them looking acceptably smart for client meetings.

3 Flexible Fashion items to consider on your way back to the office

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Workwear with a stretch

From stretch blazers to skinny jeans, it seems that there’s definitely a preference for items that afford a little more flexibility. WSJ reported a 135% increase in online purchases for stretch blazers and a 35% increase for oversized shirts. Stitch Fix also mirrored such findings, citing an increase in demand for ‘knit shells…elastic waist pants’ and clothing items with a ‘looser fit’. It seems like jeggings, skinny jeans and flared yoga pants are set to be a resurrected relic from the early 2000s

One-piece clothing items

Building an outfit is time consuming, and tiring. Jumpsuits and other one-piece items help you avoid the hassle of getting dressed for work. Jersey dresses topped the charts with a 138% increase in online purchases. Skirt suits also saw a 127% increase in online demand. Just last year, Japanese retailer Aoki released an ingenious pyjamas suit ‘that looks like a classic suit jacket but feels like PJs…complete with the cut and the buttons on both the sleeves and the front’. As the fashion industry gets creative, consumers are seeing more options for comfy office wear  for busy professionals on-the-go. 

Formal sweater blazers

Sweater blazers have emerged as a favourite among remote workers over the past year. This ‘couch-friendly’ item keeps office workers looking professional and comfy whether they’re at the office or popping in for a quick Zoom call. Luckily for remote workers, diverse blazers of all sorts are making a comeback in 2021.

The work week’s just begun – May your clothes be comfy, your coffee be strong, and your work days be short! What’s your outfit for today?

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