Name badges, smart shoes and slogan T-shirts – since “startup casual” became its own dress code, workplace uniforms have gone out of fashion (aside from Apple employees’ logo T-shirts, which make a killing on eBay). These days, most founders allow employees to express themselves, aesthetically, whether it’s hoodies and sneakers or pyjamas (at Zappos, the only requirement is that staff can’t turn up naked).
But, there could be a downside to doing away with dress codes. In fact, research suggests that a workplace uniform can make you more productive, less anxious and have more attentive to detail.
“Dressing the part, be it for work, social events or sports has such a huge impact on personal and public perception,” says Pamela Jabbour, the founder and CEO of Total Image Group, that designs and manufactures uniforms for companies like Woolworths, Ford and Pandora. “I am a strong believer in the energy or vibe certain outfits create, be it for the individual wearing the clothes or the impression somebody gets when interacting with an outfit.”
A study from professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that when research subjects wore a scientist’s or medical doctor’s white coat, they performed better on a test, made less errors and acted with more care and attentiveness.
Interestingly, those that were told it was an ‘artist’s coat’ performed worse than participants told it was a doctor’s coat, suggesting the symbolic meaning of the uniform, rather than the look or feel, affected their actions.
“There is without doubt a correlation between performance and dress,” says Pamela. “Today, more than ever, we are aware of the power of a strong purpose and culture in business, and its direct impact on sales and performance. A company uniform defines what you are about as a business and ensures, regardless of whether customer-facing or not, your team is on exactly the same page.”
Need further convincing? Here’s how a uniform could boost your business.
It ignites brand identity
If your company is customer-facing, or you have a presence at events or industry shows, a uniform can help to portray your purpose. “We are a culture based on first impressions,” says Pamela. “A huge amount of time and money is spent ensuring environments, whether it’s shops or offices, reflect the ethos of a company. In a market that is more competitive than ever, it is important to make your brand stand out in the crowd and your team can be your biggest asset.” A study of airlines found that customers were more likely to act positively to a carrier which has a uniform that stands out or reflects their personal style. “Do your homework on previous uniforms in your business,” says Pamela. “It also pays to ensure marketing and HR requirements are taken into account when preparing your brief for a uniform supplier.”
It promotes team bonding
If you’ve played a team sport, you’ll know the sense of pride of wearing a team jersey. “Reflecting the culture and values of a brand through the uniform ensures a unified team,” says Pamela. “Although each employee is an individual and would therefore have an individual style, whilst at work they are a part of a team with a common purpose.”
A study into the impact of school uniform found that, even when students didn’t particularly like wearing a uniform, it did appear to reduce bullying, ease social anxiety and also money worries around buying clothing. More surprisingly, a study from the University of Durham found that sports teams wearing red seemed to have a competitive edge. They surmised that it is tied to the evolutionary psychology of colour – in the animal kingdom red is a signal of male dominance and testosterone levels.
It still allows self expression
According to Pamela, a well-designed uniform still reflects a team’s likes and interests. “The primary purpose of a company uniform is to tell the story of what the company represents through their staff,” she says. “It is important employees feel they are valued and that their needs are considered with the uniform design. When staff are engaged, or feel a part of the design decisions, the overall attitude and sense around the uniform is far more positive.” When Southwest Airlines decided to redesign their uniforms, they put together a task force of employees to assist in the process. Transport for London employed a similar strategy redesigning their uniform with the British designer Wayne Hemingway and suggestions from over 200 staff members. “Just remember – you can’t please everyone,” adds Pamela.