This is a story about the difference between working from home in theory and working from home in practice--and a key rule that everyone is now ignoring.

But to put it in context, we need to acknowledge two big things.

First, while employees have been asking for more flexibility for years, there's been a lack of good research on remote work productivity.

That's because, historically, it's been hard to find groups of workers who do the exact same jobs--but where a significant number work from home, and a significant number work in an office.

I've written in the past about a couple of exceptions:

  • a Harvard study that looked at what happened when patent examiners were allowed to work from home, and
  • a Stanford study about what happened when a large travel agency let half of 500 call center employees work from home.

But the second big thing to acknowledge is that suddenly that limitation is basically gone. The "nobody to research" problem is no longer a problem

Entire academic careers will be made on the fast transformation that so many workers have now made, worldwide, going from "I work in an office" to "I work from home" almost overnight.

This also means we're now able to assess whether some of the "best advice" and "key rules" we've heard from people who've worked from home successfully over the years are really so applicable.

The first casualty? The "First Things Rule," which said that to work from home successfully, the first thing workers needed to do was to get up in the morning, shower, and get dressed as if they were going to an office. 

Everyone quotes it. (Recent examples: Teen Vogue, The Ladders, some of my colleagues here at Inc.) Heck, when I've written about this over the years, it's almost always come up.

But now that so many of us are suddenly working from home, it turns out almost nobody is actually following the "First Things Rule."

Case in point: A poll by NPD found that "only 10 percent of people get dressed for working at home at the start of the day and change into 'comfortable clothes' later," according to a report in the New York Times.

So what are workers doing instead? The Times suggests they're dressing casually and comfortably, wearing whatever they want, but keeping a "Zoom shirt" nearby--basically a single, mildly dressy, fast-on and fast-off wardrobe upgrade for video calls.

All that matters, it seems, is the outward appearance--and since nothing below the chest ever appears on the screen, pants, shoes, and other heretofore necessities of "getting dressed" seem to have fallen to a far-distant tie for second.

For men, it seems to be a single, wrinkle free dress shirt--often solid color. For women, there are more wardrobe options, but the goal is the same. 

(Also, those of us still dealing with that affliction known as "pandemic amateur haircut" are perhaps cropping the screen closer to the top.)

Anecdotally, relatives I saw over the Fourth of July weekend, most of whom are now working from home, nearly unanimously agreed that they're following this "Zoom shirt" model. And data would also seem to back up the trend. 

Walmart reportedly sold more tops than bottoms during the first quarter of 2020, right when work-from-home was becoming a thing, and the Times says Google trends shows "shirts" is at its peak in terms of search activity. 

So, what to make of the "First Things Rule" now that it appears most people aren't following it--especially as it appears that the one consensus takeaway is that employees can in fact work remotely, with more efficiency that most critics anticipated.

Perhaps it's partially the result of the sudden nature with which it all happened. People who had no opportunity to work from home, or even no interest in it, suddenly had no choice.

Wardrobe was just a lower priority than things like work setup, schedule, and, for many, childcare.

But there's also another factor. It's that when everyone gave that "First Things Rule" advice, people who were working from home were in the minority.

They had to adapt to what their in-office colleagues were doing.

Now? We're all in this together.

And if you're like me--and apparently most of your colleagues--that includes wearing a dress shirt with running shorts and flip flops, even on the most important work calls.