Can I Wear Sweatpants to the Office?

Workplaces are reopening, but people aren’t ready to suit up just yet.

During the pandemic, the office-casual look took on a whole new meaning. Sweatpants and athleisure replaced formal shirts, pants, blazers, and dresses.

Now, with offices across the United States making reopening plans, many employees are seriously asking, “What should I wear?” Many aren’t exactly excited to wear the power suits and dresses. Indeed, a recent survey suggests that 70% of consumers said they plan on dressing as or more casually than they did pre-pandemic when they return to in-person work and activities.

Even before the pandemic, office dress codes were becoming relaxed, and remote work further reinforced casual wear. “As a result of the last 12 months of COVID, people were working on a remote basis and in a totally relaxed dress code environment, so going back to office wear is going to be pretty limited,” says Anthony LoPinto, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Real Estate practice. However, he says, it won’t be “ultra-casual”—employees will still be expected to dress appropriately.

Office dress codes will vary based on situations, location, and industry. For instance, dressing for internal meetings will be more casual than for a meeting with the board of directors, says LoPinto. New York City will likely be more formal compared to other places, but it’ll still have a “casual orientation.” The days of dressing in a suit and tie are very limited, he says. Similarly, technology companies likely will be very casual (most tech employees weren’t exactly wearing three-piece suits before), whereas banking, senior financial services, and Wall Street environments will be on the other end of the spectrum. Still, even banking and finance industries will see a slight shift, leaning toward business casual on most days instead of a suit and tie or dresses.

Work attire in the marketing industry, especially the creative side, has always been casual and “out of the box,” and will continue in the same trajectory, says Caren Fleit, managing director in Korn Ferry’s New York office and leader of the firm’s Global Marketing Officers practice. For C-level marketing executives, however, it’ll depend on the organization’s culture and won’t be much different from other chief officers, she says. After a year of working from home, people want to add more structure to their work wardrobe, Fleit says, but it’ll still be a “happy medium.”

Although most employees can now get away with dressing in polos and jeans or blouses and khakis, some might want to dress nicer, says Craig Rowley, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry who specializes in retail. Rowley says there’s pent-up demand for dressy apparel as people are starting to go out again. “As the country opens up, people are willing to dress up again and freshen up their wardrobes,” he says, adding that the wear-something-besides-sweatpants dress code likely means there will be a massive increase in casual-dress clothing.

Still, experts believe athleisure won’t go out of style. People will continue to purchase yoga pants, leggings, and sweats because many employees will still be working from home for few days a week. So the key for the retail industry is to manufacture clothing that people can easily dress up or down. “In terms of apparel, where we’re heading is a flexible wardrobe, where you can switch around three to four pieces and have five different outfits,” Rowley says.