The New Business Casual

The phenomenon of “Business Casual” has been with us for decades, starting around the time of the dot.com era.  And after a preliminary phase that allowed folks to dress and accessorize to their heart’s content, it quickly devolved into a new set of standards nearly as rigid as the old business suit era, only supplanting “dress shirts and ties” with “shirts with collars”, subtleties like tasseled loafers instead of laced brogans and a wider variety of “slacks” (not “pants”, and only for men—women were still expected to continue to wear skirts).  Further iterations included the merging of “business casual” and “country club casual”, which only introduced additional standards and increased revenue for IZOD and other golf wear manufacturers; and last but not least, across-the-board prohibitions against blue jeans and sneakers, unless they were both at the high-end designer level, like Yves St Laurent or Air Jordan.

But since we’ve gone remote, all that has changed.  First, because we’re now uniformly (?) sitting in front of our screens and being viewed from the waist up, there are no limits to what we can wear below the waist.  And that translates to no requirements for certain styles of pants or skirt lengths as well as an open field for footwear, including slippers, flip-flops, or nothing at all.  I recently joined in a Zoom staff meeting where the conversation included everyone’s favorite UGGs colors and the merits of sweatpants with pockets.

And of course, what we’re now wearing above the waist has become personalized in a much more widely (wildly?) varied way than the old “business casual” merchandisers every dreamed of.  First, t-shirts are not uncommon, especially if they are of colors other than white, and other kinds of “tops” like work shirts, hoodies and/or pull-overs that feature the logo and name of a favorite sports team are now in the majority, and have become a vehicle for discussion and debate, which can often be a good thing since it gives us all a chance to socialize and deepen our awareness of our co-workers’ interests and passions.

But over and beyond the wider varieties of dress, another phenomenon has emerged that must be noted.  And that is the opportunity that working remotely has given us to experiment with hair styles and (for men) growing a beard or mustache.  Some of this was forced on us during the first months of COVID, where there were no opportunities to go to a hairdresser or shop at a pharmacy for shaving cream or other grooming essentials.  But the extended period of isolation has greatly exacerbated this, to the point where a few of my colleagues have gone through so many changes that I haven’t recognized them, especially if our virtual meetings have been more than a month apart.

All this on-screen variety has relegated the idea of “business casual” to the trash heap, and I for one am happy about that.  No more trying to expand your closet to include the latest designer wear and get roped into the faux competition of whose shoes are the coolest, or whether the sequins on your jeans are better than someone else’s.  Working remotely has provoked us to look inward and get more in touch with our unique styles, preferences and tastes, and I think that’s all to the good.

And there is no working remotely preference that makes this clearer than our individual choices of “background”, or what is on the screen behind us.  Of course, this is greatly controlled by our available remote workplace, and that can often be just the corner of a room or a space that is otherwise not used.  And our “background” can also be affected by the kind of computer or camera location we have.  For instance, many of my colleagues are “meeting” on a laptop instead of a desktop, and the angle of their screen only includes a background that catches the upper part of the wall behind them where it meets a ceiling.  Although some specific design features like the type of decorative molding they have may add to the overall ambience (look up “ogee” and “ogive” for two examples), it can often be too vague to establish anything that could be called an individualistic style.  This is also the case for those who’ve placed behind them a “uniform” background of some kind, like a bamboo lattice or curtain with a repeating pattern.

One step above these efforts is the practice of choosing a visual background from an online source or file, and simply appearing in front of it.  Although this permits a great deal of personal choice (some vendors have available more than 1000 options and there is software available to choose a favorite “scene” of one’s own), the generic and “static” quality of these choices can sometimes be off-putting.  And although many of my colleagues have backgrounds “on rotation” that conveys greater individualism and a more eclectic design style, their technical glitches (pixel size etc.) are annoying, particularly when a colleague will use a gesture to emphasize a point and end up losing part of their head or have hands that turn into flippers because the image can’t catch up to the speed of their movement.

All of this brings me to the point of this blog.  The old Business Casual, as well-intentioned as it was, sprang from a general disaffection with formal business wear and the desire to move toward more informal business practices, to match the “matrix management” and team-based collaboration that evolved in the 70’s and 80’s.  The benefits of those work styles are still with us, but the necessity of working remotely has broken new ground and given us all the opportunity to professionally expand our presence and our persona in entirely different ways.  While we don’t need to focus on what we wear below the waist, we have many other ways to be “ourselves”—our clothing, our grooming and our surroundings.  And according to the Career Exploration mantra of finding your job “match”, I say more power to those of us who make an individual statement on the screen, because it will go far toward showing a potential employer who we are.

So, welcome to the age of “Working Personal”!   Following the example of such online luminaries as Bryant Gumbel, Anthony Fauci and SE Cupp, I encourage you to wear your work-related above-the-waist attire with pride and arrange your personal workspace so it expresses the best side of you.  If you play an instrument, include it in the background; if you have a favorite painting, hang it on the wall behind you, and if you’ve recently done something you’re proud of, put the acknowledgement of it—a cup, certificate or memento—where your fellow Zoom user can clearly see it.  All these things are personal talismans of what is most important to you and can certainly add to your networking conversations or interviews with prospective employers.  And to further emphasize this point, they can also show those employers how you could be aligned with an organization’s culture or illustrate a skill that you can’t quite articulate on your resume.

Ideally, your job search should focus on opportunities that match all of you–your skills, your values, your “purpose” and your preferred environment.  And if you are working remotely, the wide array of ways to be virtually “you” is a resource you should use to the utmost in your job search, not downplay or overly curate.  So, get on a Zoom call with a friend and ask for feedback about your virtual presence, or better yet, schedule a virtual Mock Interview with one of us at Career Services.  We’ll give you feedback on how we’re “Working Personal” and how you can, too!

By John Tuton
John Tuton Associate Director, Nursing/Education/Social Work John Tuton