The Devil Wears Pyjamas: Restyling the office dress code for Generation Z

After years of Zoom calls in pyjamas, big brands are rolling out casual new uniforms of jumpsuits and jeans. What does the change tell us about the UK workplace?

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Last week, HSBC unveiled a new-look uniform for its 4,000 branch staff. The move represents a more “casual look” for its branches.

Following in the footsteps of British Airways, the new range swaps out power suits for jumpsuits in a nod to the changing definition of ‘professionalism’ in the workplace.

Ostensibly, the switch is being driven by the generational divide between older office workers, and the emerging Generation Z. Those born after 1996 have come of working age during a global pandemic; the biggest upheaval to office culture in recent history.

With their experimental style that prioritises casualness over formality, these so-called ‘Zoomers’ are blurring the lines between business wear and fashion extraordinaire.

Do they have a point? Or does this behavioural shift risk a more relaxed approach to deadlines? Below, we explore the changing attitudes to modern workwear, and explain how small businesses can alter their existing policies to stay ahead of the trend.

How is Gen Z redressing the modern office?

Announcing the company’s new range of workwear last month, HSBC UK's director of distribution Jackie Uhi declared that the days of “bowler-hatted bankers” were over.

“The modern-day banker is still smart and professional but much more casual and approachable,” she said.

Largely, this seems to be a remnant of the pandemic, when the idea of the smartly-dressed office worker in a three-piece suit went out the window. Even CEOs were dialling into meetings in a hoodie and jeans.

But while many have gone back to button-downs and blouses, for those who entered the workforce during this time – and also happen to be the first cohort of Generation Z – the casual COVID working style is all they know.

Tatiana Lebreton joined the workforce last year and currently works in marketing. She says she wouldn’t judge a colleague if they showed up to the office in joggers or leggings.

“I don't think you need to be in a suit in order to look professional and be taken seriously,” she adds. “The weekend attire of boomers is today's business casual.”

Five people model the new HSBC uniform, including a jumpsuit

The new, “casual” HSBC uniform, announced last month. (Image via BBC News).

The craze is also being accelerated by social media. More specifically the global video-hosting platform TikTok, which 40% of under 26s say has replaced Google as their number one search engine (Lebreton is an avid user).

Thousands of TikTok videos show young people using their personal accounts to flaunt stylish work uniforms. Tagged #workoutfits, they have racked up millions of views – creating a content catwalk that is increasingly influencing the outside world.

What would your colleagues say if they saw you?

Some older generation workers have no issue with smart-casual dressing (the concept of a ‘Casual Friday’ was first ushered into the workplace in the 1990s by millennials).

Jack Turner is a Gen X technology editor who entered the workforce in 2000. He says he likes the new focus on fashion that Gen Z brings to teams. “I can see the need to look professional in a customer facing role, but I have friends whose workplaces insist on the traditional suit and tie, and it seems so archaic to me.”

Others disagree, however. According to a survey by recruiting company Ranstrad, 24% of people are tired of wearing casual loungewear and want to get “suited and booted” again, even putting on a full suit for video calls.

There are also obvious situations where it is expected that people dress in a particular way. For example, in client meetings or at networking events. In some cases, such as for health and safety reasons, it will actually be impossible for small businesses to forgo a work uniform.

Plus, fewer dress code rules increases the chances of inappropriate dress or attire that is problematic for the workplace. It might even negatively impact organisational culture.

All this means that today’s business owners have the difficult task of marrying previous attitudes to workwear with the changing opinions of younger staff members, who are increasingly rejecting traditional corporate clothing.

Casual or comfortable?

Post-COVID, office workers across the UK have settled into a hybrid working model. With most of us routinely alternating between a home desk and a corporate office setting, it’s become harder to keep our private and professional lives separate.

Amy Irvine is an SEO executive who joined the workforce mid-lockdown in November 2021. Irvine says she picks her day’s outfit based on what activity she’ll be doing after work, explaining, “if I have plans for the evening I might wear something nicer than normal.”

Gen Z are not necessarily slacking, then. Instead, their clothes design suggests they feel more comfortable being themselves in the workplace when not forced to effect a polished, suit-and-tie persona.

Irvine agrees with this theory. “I think millennials have less personality displayed through their clothing in regards to office wear,” she submits.

The idea of encouraging staff to be their “authentic self” at work is something that companies are now commonly embracing to improve employee health and wellbeing, and ultimately productivity.

Virgin Atlantic said last year that it would take a “fluid approach” to uniforms to allow staff to choose their clothing “no matter their gender”.

Even those professions typically considered traditional, such as accountancy and law, have taken on an easy-going ‘dress for your day’ employee benefit that encourages individuality.

Philip Richardson, partner and head of employment law at Stephensons, reports that more law companies are trusting their employees to make their own judgement calls on work attire. “One family law firm has already advised its colleagues to replace suits with sequins to express their personalities,” he reveals.

How should small businesses react to the trend?

Startups recently asked employment experts for their view on how SMEs should manage the growing craze. Exclusively, they advise adopting a more relaxed outlook on worker wardrobes to outpace competitors and attract Gen Z talent.

Millennial worker, Alexandra Farmer is head of team and solicitor at NestWork, an employment law consultancy. Farmer predicts the power suit will struggle to make a full comeback in the era of hybrid working.

“There should be boundaries,” she says, “[but] colleagues will question why they need to wear something different at home or in the office when the work is the same.”

Why is it important to attract and retain Gen Z employees?

Embracing the shift towards a more casual and accommodating office culture will enable hiring managers to build an attractive work environment for Gen Z job seekers.

For SMEs, this could be the difference between success and failure. They are considered the newbies today, but in just two years time, Zoomers will constitute 27% of the workforce.

Here are three other big benefits to hiring Generation Z workers:

  1. They’ll help bridge the skills gap. Gen Z will be the UK’s most qualified generation. 80% have higher education qualifications, compared to 15% of Boomers. This will no doubt prove key to plugging the skills gap in years to come.
  2. They’re attuned to new ways of working. Coming of working age post-COVID means Gen Z are well up-to-speed with hybrid working, with 75% saying they prefer it to full-time office working patterns.
  3. They are digital natives. This age group has grown up with the internet in all its glory. As global connectivity soars, Gen Z employees can help firms keep up with technological advances.

How to design a dress code in 2024

Dress codes are not a legal requirement. Unless there is a contractual requirement for someone to dress in a particular way, such as for health and safety reasons, business owners do not need to have one in place.

Still, while everyday office duties might not require one, a dress policy can be a useful tool for shaping organisational culture and maintaining brand cohesion.

Here are our top tips for a smartly-designed dress code in 2024 that will keep employers happy and staff onside.

1. DON’T make it hard to find

Any rules on attire should be accessible and available to all employees at all times. Normally this will be a non-contractual policy, set out within a Staff Handbook or placed on an employer’s intranet.

Philip Richardson explains that “the roll out of any dress code policy must be consistent. All staff should be informed about the policy, who the policy applies to, when it applies, and any exceptions.”

Try to make it clear and obvious what words like “appropriate” and “businesslike” actually mean to you as a manager. Avoid using vague words that can create confusion among workers. Photo examples of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ will make things even easier to grasp.

2. DO involve employees

Lisa Moore is senior employment solicitor at Harper James. Moore recommends business owners consult with staff on what the company dress code should to keep employees engaged and invested.

“This would allow an employer to explain why it is necessary, when it will come into force and to address any queries or concerns,” she notes. “The policy should then be written down to clearly set out expectations of staff, and reviewed on a regular basis.”

3. DO be flexible

Stay flexible to the guidelines rather than adopting a ‘one size fits all’ management method – a guaranteed fashion faux pas.

Jennifer Leeder is legal director at Birketts LLP, one of the oldest law firms in the UK. Leeder explains that a flexible approach, “ensures certain people are not put at a disadvantage, both in terms of their protected characteristics and other constraints, such as their finances.”

4. DON’T ignore Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

A dress code that does not account for diversity in the workforce could create both personal and legal problems for business owners.

Last month, British Airways announced its first uniform redesign in 20 years. It included a hijab and tunic option for Muslim women. HSBC’s breathable jumpsuit has also been described as being “menopause-friendly”.

Both restyles have received considerable praise for promoting inclusivity, and is a useful reminder of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) considerations when deciding what is acceptable attire.

British Airways staff model the new work uniform including its first ever hijab.

British Airways new uniform, announced last month.
Image via @pamannairbitch (Twitter)

Certainly, all workwear policies must adhere to the Equality Act 2010. This states that a staff member cannot be discriminated against due to:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religious belief
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Marital status
  • Pregnancy

DEI is also important to properly embody your company values. If you’re claiming to be a tolerant and inclusive organisation, but promoting a prejudicial dress policy, you’ll be opening yourself up to accusations of corporate hypocrisy.

Final thoughts

While Gen Z office fashion might feel alien, change is necessary for progress. As forward-thinking brands like HSBC illustrate, the trend towards more personalised work styles points to broader advancements on inclusion and self-expression in the workplace.

It’s time for managers to loosen the tie. Developing a corporate dress policy that leaves space for individual choices is a surefire way to stay professional while ensuring employees can still feel valued, respected, and accepted.

Philip Richardson concedes that, while there is still a place for smart office attire, “the world of work has changed, and how and where that work is done has evolved. Attitudes to work attire will also go through a similar evolution.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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