"Finally, We Can Wear Shorts in the Office," blared a Wall Street Journal headline this summer, though the usually buttoned-up paper complicated things slightly by adding a '(Maybe)' to the end.
Which pretty much sums up where we all are when it comes to dressing for the office these days. More than two years of working from home in sweatpants has rewritten expectations for professional attire. The old rules clearly no longer apply. But as many of us venture back to the office at least sometimes, it's also often unclear where exactly the line between acceptable and unacceptable lies.
So how do you navigate this more relaxed but not anything goes middle ground? Can you, in fact, wear shorts to the office?
Answers to these thorny questions will, of course, vary by company and industry, but according to one Harvard professor there are at least a few hard and fast rules to guide you. On HBR recently, Harvard Kennedy School communications lecturer and author Allison Shapira offers three principles to help you figure out what to wear to work now.
1. Start with observation.
Dressing for a night out or a Saturday in the park is about personal expression -- let your inner light shine! But dressing for work is largely about signaling your status, competence, and sometimes even personality, while putting others at ease. Which is why Shapira's first rule is to start by observing what others are doing and factor their choices into your own wardrobe decisions.
What do clients wear to meetings? How is the CEO dressing? Do styles change based on the day of the week or the type of work being undertaken? "Observe the boundaries," instructs Shapira. "Look for the nuances in how and when people dress down."
2. Experiment and adjust.
While you need to carefully observe those around you, you don't need to slavishly follow their fashion decisions. When you feel strongly, it's fine to be the first person in the office to make a change. Just be sure to carefully observe how your new style statement goes down and adjust accordingly.
Shapira shares a story about a recent speaking engagement at a conference full of buttoned-up bankers to illustrate. "I tried on my black stilettos but simply couldn't bring myself to wear them. They felt 'off' somehow. So I tried something new: Instead of wearing my traditional power shoes, I chose new sparkly sneakers to pair with my business dress," she reports.
Two things happened. "First, I felt even more powerful on stage than I had ever felt in heels; instead of worrying about the heels falling between the cracks on the podium, I could focus on my message and my audience," she continues. "Second, I was constantly stopped by people who complimented me on the shoes. Elegantly dressed bankers approached me to ask hopefully, 'Can we wear those now?'" Clearly, that's a green light to keep her sparkle.
3. Err on the side of authenticity.
Shapira isn't the only one who feels the pandemic has freed her to express herself more authentically. If we've all learned anything from the past few years, it's that everyone we work with is a complete 360-degree person. Suppressing that truth is exhausting, so we all perform better when we can bring our whole selves to work.
That's why Shapira's article is dotted with stories of high-powered executives in traditional industries that have swapped gray suits for a greater degree of colors and comfort. "Authenticity sends a powerful message, and what we are seeing post-pandemic is that comfort does as well. Business executives can set the tone," Shapira writes.
So can entrepreneurs. Even Covid hasn't created a world of everything goes. But it has driven home what a huge waste of energy it is to pretend to be someone you're not. So as a first principle err on the side of expressing your true self at the office as long as your style won't embarrass anyone or distract from your good work.