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  • Writer's pictureSharon K Parker

To dress or not to dress? Getting into a work mindset

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker

Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.

You’re working from home for the foreseeable future. The usual morning routine of suiting up for work no longer applies to you. In fact, you could even settle into a staple of sweat pants and pajamas. None of your colleagues are around to call you out. You no longer feel restrained by the confines of traditional workplace conventions… ready to face the day with more freedom than ever before.

At the corner of your eye, you notice that your garden hasn’t received much love and care lately. The shrubs are overgrown… the plants haven’t been watered… and, those pesky weeds are back. You decide to give your garden the attention it deserves and before you know it, it’s half past 10 and you haven’t yet settled into your home office for a day of work.

You have just experienced one of the main challenges associated with remote work - a lack of structure in the day. Without much structure to your day, you are vulnerable to the myriad of distractions that may emerge while you are working from home. This lack of structure can also mean that there is no end to your work day - that you end up being at work all the time, even while you are at home.

Here are three reasons why getting dressed can help address the inherent lack of structure associated with working from home.

1. Getting dressed into work clothes activates your ‘worker’ identity

When posed the question of ‘Who am I’, you might answer, I am a friend, a parent, a musician, a hockey player. These are your identities. Each of us have multiple identities, and these get activated by the different environments that we step into. When you walk onto the hockey field, your hockey player identity surfaces; when your child falls down and starts crying, your parent identity emerges to attend to their needs. Likewise, when you get dressed in your work wear, your “worker” identity kicks in. You are now motivated to be a “worker” and are focused on ensuring your productivity for the day ahead.

Research on professionals who transitioned from being conventional office workers to homeworkers found that a good number of these workers continued to dress up office clothing when working at home (Brocklehurst, 2001). Such actions help them to reinforce their sense of “being at work”.

A classical study by Karl Weick (1996) examined the circumstances in which multiple firefighters perished while fighting an out-of-control wildfire. He found that while many firefighters were able to out-run the fire, some refused to drop their equipment, and as a result were not able to run fast enough to escape the fire. Weick proposed that the equipment formed a vital part of the firefighters’ identity. Donning the uniform, wearing the breathing apparatuses and carrying the hoses made them “feel” like firefighters. Thus, even in an emergency situation, these firefighters found it difficult to leave their equipment behind. This example demonstrates the extent in which a person’s identity can be inexplicably bound to the ‘tools of the trade’.

The same can be said for the clothes that you and I wear to work.

2. Getting dressed into and out of work clothes helps manage boundaries between home and work.

Getting dressed into your office clothes helps you to put your brain in the right mindset for work. By changing out of the clothes that you slept in, and putting on your usual work wear, you are telling your brain, “I am at work now”. Likewise, when you change out of your working clothes into your home wear at the end of the day, you are telling yourself that the work day is over, and that it’s time to rest and focus on non-work activities. These actions serve as clearly defined bookends (i.e. start and end points) to your day, and can help you keep to your regular amount of working hours.

To ensure that boundaries between home and work are kept, use a change of clothes to transition between your work identity and home identity.

3. Getting dressed into work clothes can help your long-term abstract thinking.

Slepian and colleagues (2015) at Columbia University found that when individuals dress in more formal clothing, they were more likely to think broadly and consider long -term goals. This form of thinking, also known as abstract thinking, plays an important role in helping us complete daily work tasks.

While I am not suggesting that you should dust off your tuxedo and wear it everyday, it might be worth switching gears and deliberately wearing more formal business wear on days where you are faced with some tasks that require considerable focus and extensive mental gymnastics. It is also likely that there are the days in which you are most likely to be tempted to attend to your garden as a means to avoid facing down those daunting tasks. Being in a ‘business’ frame of mind by dressing more formally might help you to stifle any distractions that may come your way. Likewise, on days where you are working on more creative tasks or brainstorming for new opportunities, you might choose a comfortable tracksuit instead.

My tip for the day is to intentionally use the way you dress as a way to get yourself into - and out of - a work mindset. Experiment with different sets of clothes - dress in office wear one day, stay in your pajamas the next, or deck yourself out in active wear on another day.

Find out which combination of clothing delivers the most productive version of you.

References and resources

Brocklehurst, M. (2001). Power, identity and new technology homework: Implications fornew forms' of organizing. Organization studies, 22(3), 445-466.

Slepian, M. L., Ferber, S. N., Gold, J. M., & Rutchick, A. M. (2015). The cognitive consequences of formal clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(6), 661-668.

Weick, K. E. (1996). Drop your tools: An allegory for organizational studies. Administrative science quarterly, 301-313.

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