PEI

Will workplace flexibility extend to employee dress codes in the post-COVID world?

Pre-pandemic, you may have found yourself parked in front of the mirror assessing an outfit hurriedly put together while chugging back a morning coffee, hoping it would meet workplace standards. 

'I just don't think it's a big priority anymore in the big scheme of things'

Some people think dressing for work could change for the better after COVID-19. (Submitted/Peyton Juhnke)

Pre-pandemic, you may have found yourself parked in front of the mirror assessing an outfit hurriedly put together while chugging back a morning coffee, hoping it would meet workplace standards. 

Is that a bra strap? Is denim too casual?  How much flesh is too much? Can a blazer ever be too much? These were just some of the perils involved in getting ready for work — that is, before COVID-19 forced people into home offices. 

Suddenly, dress codes relaxed and anxious streams of consciousness in front of the mirror became a thing of the past. It has some people thinking it could impact the way employees dress as COVID-19 restrictions are eased and people return to work. 

Dressing for work before the pandemic, Islander Chelsea Perry, who works as a policy and communications officer with the P.E.I. government's members office, says she typically employed the grandmother test. 

'Givens are actually things we can examine'

"If I would get a side-eye from my grandma, I would never consider that professional for a business situation," she said. 

However, she said returning to work after COVID-19, she hopes to see "a little more understanding" when it comes to what constitutes professional dress.

"When it's just office days, and you know you're just going to be probably not seeing too many people, then I allow myself to loosen up a little bit with joggers and a T-shirt," Perry said.

Jillian Kilfoil, the executive director of Women's Network P.E.I., said "COVID-19 has shown that a lot of things that we assume are givens are actually things we can examine and don't necessarily need to be a part of our norm or our regular standard moving forward." 

"It's disrupted what a lot of workplaces look like and what a lot of people's regular life looks like. Work attire and dress at work is certainly part of that," she said. 

Jillian Kilfoil, who is the executive director of Women's Network P.E.I., says dress codes in the work place can negatively impact those who earn less. (Tee Johnny Photography)

Kilfoil said working in nine-to-five work environments can present some pressures on women, particularly, to ascribe to specific dress codes. 

"I think if we're looking at people working from home, people telecommuting more often, more people being able to connect virtually, I really think that changes what we expect from one another in terms of work attire," she said. 

"I think it's a lot easier to dress, you know, more business casual or to maybe have a little bit more variety and feel less pressure when it comes to your attire." 

It is something that can be very difficult and a pressure that certainly impacts people who have less financial security.— Jillian Kilfoil, Women's Network P.E.I.

P.E.I. has some of the lowest wages in Canada, Kilfoil pointed out, and that poses problems for some people in being able to obtain the attire their workplace demands. 

"A lot of times people are working in environments that might have a high standard in terms of what they expect, in terms of dress code or attire and the wages may not reflect that," she said.

"It is something that can be very difficult and a pressure that certainly impacts people who have less financial security and who are earning lower wages." 

'I don't think people are as concerned with how other people see them [in] the midst of everything else going on,' says Leon Jesso. (Submitted by Leon Jesso)

Leon Jesso, who works with the Canada Revenue Agency in Summerside, said before the pandemic, he was wearing collared plaid shirts paired with jeans but now has relaxed his wardrobe to a T-shirt and jeans. 

"I don't think people are as concerned with how other people see them [in] the midst of everything else going on," he said. 

While the more relaxed attitude surrounding dress code is welcome, he said it wasn't as much an adjustment as women might be experiencing after working from home. 

"There's far more attention put on to what the women wear, versus whatever I go into work in. It gets noticed more, it gets commented on more … there's a lot less attention to what men wear." 

'It will definitely change'

Karrie MacDougall runs First Impressions, a clothing shop in Charlottetown that's been helping women access work attire since 2015. 

I think we're all just trying to take a look at how to simplify our lives more and enjoy our lives more now that we've been forced to take a look at that.— Karrie MacDougall, First Impressions

MacDougall said she hopes the relaxed attitudes toward workplace dress codes will lead to less pressure put on people to go out and spend money.

"I think it will definitely change. We've seen a change anyway, in the last year or so. People are going more business casual, we don't seem to have a lot of need for suits, dress suits or classier dresses," she said. 

"It's a lot of pressure for people to buy, for one thing."

'It's a lot of pressure for people to buy, for one thing,' says Karrie MacDougall, who runs First Impressions in Charlottetown. (CBC)

MacDougall said she hopes new attitudes toward dress codes will also help people with different body types and sizes to feel comfortable in their work clothing. 

"Unfortunately the larger size you are, seems to be it costs more for your clothing," she said. 

"I think we're all just trying to take a look at how to simplify our lives more and enjoy our lives more now that we've been forced to take a look at that. So I just don't think it's a big priority anymore in the big scheme of things." 

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About the Author

Sam Juric

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Sam Juric is a digital reporter with CBC Sudbury and can be reached at samantha.juric@cbc.ca.

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