Why the activity-based wardrobe is an extension of agile working

In the switch from suits to sneakers, a new wave of agile working is giving corporate employees freedom over their work apparel. Jeans and t-shirts are no longer reserved for quirky tech start-ups

Mark Zuckerberg has his hoodies and trainers; Steve Jobs donned blue Levi’s and black turtlenecks; music guru Simon Cowell has his signature white t-shirts. What we wear sends a message to the world – our apparel can define how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.

Increasingly corporate organisations are opening up to the idea of activity-based working environments inside their offices, but these changes go unnoticed outside amid the rigid uniforms of suits and heels. Inside the office, the space may have changed but the message to employees is confused – they are given autonomy over how and where they work, but not over the clothes they wear every day.

Even from a practical standpoint, the messages don’t align. As large, imposing staircases replace lifts to encourage movement and chance encounters throughout the office, women are expected to navigate their way up and down them in six-inch stilettos. Similarly, soft seating areas are replacing static rows of desks, but men are still expected to crease their crisply ironed shirts as they nestle into a beanbag.

Aligning the message

While start-up companies have set a trend for shabby-chic business dress, many corporates have maintained a straight-edged approach to their dress code, with the occasional exception of a token ‘dress-down Friday’ policy. But the times are changing, and more traditional industries are waking up to the idea of activity-based dressing.

Activity-based dressing mirrors the concept of activity-based working (ABW) – just as ABW gives employees to freedom and autonomy to work where they want in a diverse spectrum of settings, activity-based dressing allows employees the freedom to dress more casually according to the tasks they are carrying out that day.

‘Employees are asked to exercise good judgement when choosing their work wear for the day…’

Goldman Sachs recently received a lot of media attention for its shift towards a more flexible dress code. Responding to the changing nature of work, the company adopted a dress policy which simply asks that employees ‘exercise good judgement’ when choosing their outfit for the day. The investment bank previously had a more relaxed dress code for its technology department, but its 36,000 client-facing employees were still required to wear formal business wear – until the change. Other large corporates such as PwC and Land Securities have also adopted activity-based dressing as a broader initiative to promote an agile working culture on a company-wide scale.

Competing for talent

If the move to activity-based dressing is just the latest instalment in the development of activity-based working, the financial service industry is leading the charge. As digitally-focused banks increasingly compete with technology companies for talent, they are looking more closely at how their employees work and at the overall experience they are providing.

A key component of satisfaction in the office is employee control and autonomy, and for the most part this has been addressed through activity-based working – yet how can there truly be a culture of autonomy and flexibility if employees aren’t offered the same freedom over something as basic as what they wear to work? The office dress code debate has some way to run.

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