Can we wear jeans now?

Traditional corporate environments have long since dictated that dressing smart for work is a pre-requisite of the job; anything that resembled black, navy, grey and chinos meant you were safely cloned to proceed down the corridor – while tank tops, short skirts and blue jeans were by every measure a career-limiting move.

Until somebody shouted “ZOOM” and remote working became a thing – and all you needed for the boardroom was a jacket on top. Through 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic not only shook the world, but it also shook dress code policies too. Whether you were running your meeting from your home office or from your work office, suiting up for the occasion became less and less of, well, an ‘occasion’ – and more of a drag.

Coming from a routine backdrop, most Directors and CEOs have struggled with how to lead the latest dress code policy questions like “can I turn my camera off?”; “can we wear jeans to the office now?” and “Is it okay if I come in my gym shoes?” In the old world, where there was only ever room for the black-navy-grey algorithm, these suggestions would have had you outcast as a “bad culture fit” and you’d be yellow carded for merely asking the question. Cue a global pandemic, a passcode and a share screen option and suddenly the rules have gone out the window and everyone’s wearing slippers to work. The result? CEOs and Managers partaking in ‘zoom stalking’: this would be leaders randomly camera calling their employees during the workday, just to check they were dressed appropriately for the ‘office’.

So, the burning question is – how important is it still for the smart-casual dress code to have a place in corporate culture and, additionally, how will leaders of multi-conglomerates manage the dress-up-dress-down process without losing control – or patience?

When it comes to dress code policies in the workplace: here are 5 rational note-to-self responses for industry captains to consider:


Note to self #1: Does it really matter?

According to a survey by Coupon Follow over 50% of employees working from home say they don’t adhere to a defined dress code anymore, of which only 2% reported a decline in productivity when dressing down. So does it matter? To culture maybe, but to productivity – not at all. It’s up to the decision-maker to decide which side of the fence his/her policy objectives lie, then make the call.


Note to self #2: A real leader doesn’t dictate.

Getting real about the dress code is a good thing. Most of us in corporate leadership will shyly admit that working in a loose t-shirt and sneakers actually feels super comfy and would be preferred. Truth is, if it feels good for a leader, then it will feel good for the team. Why not offer a survey to your teams on what style of clothing they are most comfy to work in, and find a consensus. Real leadership doesn’t dictate, it listens.

Note to Self #3: Leadership isn’t finite.

Leadership is not finite. It should be fluid. It shifts, it tweaks, it adapts, sometimes it even changes gender. And the reason why most of us in the year 2021, aren’t adopting ‘real leadership’ – is because we’re structure-stuck and afraid of flexibility. Remove the clause and make space for your leadership to reshape itself for the times. It’ll earn you respect amongst other things.

Note to Self #4:  Transformation doesn’t need balloons.

When it comes to changing things up, it’s not about the paperwork or the ceremony. We don’t need balloons or a brag wall to prove we support change and transformation. It’s the small changes, subtle tweaks that make the difference to company culture. Start with the dress code or a team build. Transformation can be as simple as braai day Fridays or jeans on a Tuesday.

Note To Self # 5: Meet your people in the middle.

True change can only come about if we give ourselves and our teams permission to adapt; to spend time tweaking the system together, not revolting against it. Meeting our people where they are at is a good place to start the conversation and build a better culture.

As business leaders, it’s high time we reframe our idea of leadership – what it looks like, what it feels like and mostly, what it dresses like. Change is never easy, but, on closer examination – it is, in fact, a hidden gift in our businesses that we need to accept. It forces us to take notice of the rules and listen; to re-read our policies and adjust them, to shift perspective, to reimagine our workforce and our value systems – so that the next time we get asked “can we wear jeans now?” we’re not fumbling nor angry nor yellow-carding. Instead, we’re one step ahead – and the answer from the ‘real leader’ will most probably be “Yes!”