Walk along most streets of the country’s major towns between Monday and Thursday, and you will encounter thousands of men and women in professional attire. On Fridays, however, the scene changes and the streets are populated by people dressed in what has come to be known as ‘business casual’.
But despite the pervasiveness of the culture of dressing down on Fridays — which has been exploited by introducing corporate uniforms as a sign of loyalty and brand patronage — few businesses understand its strategic implications.
The origin of dress-down Fridays is traced back to 1966 when the Hawaiian garment industry was trying to sell more shirts and came up with the idea of ‘Aloha Friday’. The idea was to encourage Hawaiian businesses to let their employees wear Hawaiian shirts to the office once a week, creating demand. Mufi Hannemann, the former mayor of Honolulu and proud owner of hundreds of Aloha shirts, was a child when Aloha Fridays first launched. He says what began as a marketing ploy quickly became a cultural statement.
Execute the look
A brand called Dockers, which had been recently acquired by Levi Strauss & Co, at the time made khaki trousers that were mostly worn on Saturdays as a knock-around-the-golf-course type of garment.
However, the spread of Aloha Fridays moved Dockers off the golf course and into the cubicle; it became the go-to brand for business casual attire.
And while employees had heard about casual wear, many did not know how to execute the look. Dockers was taken to the next level by Levi, which printed up an unassuming eight-page brochure titled A Guide to Casual Businesswear to address this problem. It was sent to 25,000 human resource managers across the US and showed different looks.
What followed was that HR managers handed out the brochures to their employees to give them guidelines on what was appropriate and what was not. Dockers also sponsored in-office fashion shows and a hotline for HR managers with dress code emergencies. Soon, Dockers’ clothes were everywhere, and Aloha Fridays went fully mainstream.
So how strategically important is dressing down at the office?
It has been said that you are addressed by the way you dress. It has also been said that how you dress has an impact on your behaviour. In high school, for instance, your dressing showed your level of discipline. So when the boss sends the message that on Fridays you should not take yourself too seriously, what is that supposed to mean? Can you come to work late, be less productive than on other days, leave earlier than usual and be lax about toeing the moral line?
The truth is that one’s dressing has a psychological effect, and a dress-down day does not just have a physical manifestation in terms of how employees dress, but also has a mental effect that impacts attitudes and morals.
Thus, it may lead to lower productivity on the dress-down day, which can eventually affect overall productivity. This is because if on one day an employee is allowed to take work a little less seriously, he or she will slowly make it a way of doing things every day, slowly creating a culture of non-performance.
Ban dress downs?
So, should corporates ban dress downs? The short answer is yes — if the disadvantages are greater than the advantages.
For instance, although dress-down policies can make staff feel more comfortable, they can have a negative impact on clients.
If clients are accustomed to seeing professionally dressed staff, then they may be unimpressed seeing them in jeans and T-shirts. This is especially so in businesses such as law, management consulting or medicine where employees are expected to look authoritative.
Allowing employees to dress down can also negatively impact productivity if staff interpret a dress-down day as the day less work is expected of them.
The advantages of casual Fridays are usually greater if employees enjoy dressing casually and clients do not mind this. The advantages are also greater if employees do not interact with customers directly, such as at call centres.
Thus, leaders should ensure that just as with any corporate practise, a dress-down day is only adopted if strategically important.
The writer is senior lecturer, Strathmore Business School.