Wearing a suit and tie to work is too formal for modern professionals

Author: Kate Whitehead | Date: 18 May 2016

Survey finds vast majority in favour of more relaxed ‘Steve Jobs-style’ dress codes

Gone are the days when a suit and tie were an absolute must in the workplace: today that once-standard issue business uniform is regarded as too formal.
A recent study by workspace provider Regus found almost three-quarters of professionals worldwide agreed that a suit and tie are too formal for the modern office.
That figure was even higher in South Korea (85 per cent), Singapore (84 per cent), the Philippines (82 per cent) and India (82 per cent). The big exception in Asia was Japan (66 per cent), which can be attributed to a stricter corporate culture.
“In Japan, work attire is more formal. Even blue-collar workers are expected to always be smart; tidiness is seen as a merit,” says Dr Jamie Cheung, programme director of the Masters of Human Resources Management at Hong Kong Baptist University.
She points out that corporate dress codes vary greatly depending on the industry. One of the world’s most recognised CEOs, Apple’s Steve Jobs, set the trend in the 1990s with his personal uniform of jeans and black turtleneck. His casual workplace style has been adopted by many of Asia’s tech leaders.
“Look at Pony Ma, one of the founders of Tencent – he dresses casually,” says Dr Cheung. “Many people in the computer industry and in creative industries have a more relaxed dress, but for people in fields such as accounting and finance they still need to wear suits and ties, especially if they are meeting a client.”
The verdict is still out on whether there’s a correlation between business attire and productivity. Natina Wong, country manager at Regus Hong Kong, says numerous studies over the years have tended to reach a middle-of-the road conclusion. She points to one sponsored by the Master’s College in California which found that “casual dress has equally positive and negative effects”.
Wong says HR managers should keep an open attitude and be flexible when it comes to adopting emerging business attire trends. She suggests they create their own corporate dress code guidelines, marrying employees’ personal preferences with business or industry requirements.
Such guidelines should be communicated to employees from day one, and could help HR managers gauge people’s satisfaction and happiness towards corporate dress codes – and make adjustments when needed.
“After all, such policies serve as means to create an open and encouraging workplace environment. If executed properly, it shouldn’t be a headache for HR managers to talk to people about their fashion choices,” says Wong.
Dr Cheung agrees. She says if the decision is made to have a dress code it must be communicated clearly to staff in a written memo.
“Distribute it to all the employees and explain the reason for it. This will help reduce any tension, so some people won’t be complaining that they can’t wear jeans but another section is permitted. They need to understand the reasoning,” says Dr Cheung.
While flip-flops were deemed acceptable for the office by just 14 per cent of respondents globally, that figure shot up to 74 per cent in South Korea and 28 per cent in Hong Kong.
In November last year Citigroup sent a memo to its Hong Kong staff ahead of an office move, detailing business attire for client-facing staff and appropriate “business casual” for non-client facing staff. An extensive list of inappropriate clothing included strapless and off-the-shoulder tops, Birkenstock sandals and fluffy bedroom slippers.
The weather in Asia is also likely a factor in encouraging workers to “dress down”, particularly in cities where public transport isn’t air-conditioned. This could explain why the Regus study – which canvassed the opinions of 40,000 respondents in 100 countries – found that half of respondents felt T-shirts were acceptable office attire, with the figure rising to 88 per cent and 76 per cent in mainland China and South Korea respectively.