In the UK, a Battle over Suiting Up

Returning office workers are challenging the country’s tradition of business attire. 

For many reasons, people have resisted returning to the office. Some hate commuting. Others have childcare issues. But in the UK, there’s a distinctively British sticking point: a formal dress code.

According to recent government data, 36% of UK employees are still working, at least in part, from home. That’s fewer than in the US, but not much of an improvement on the 47% of employees working from home in April 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Experts say one key issue is Britain’s longstanding tradition of formal work wear in the office—especially for lawyers, bankers, and consultants. Over the past two years, men and women working from home have had the opportunity to dress casually. “It’s a bit uncomfortable wearing black leather shoes instead of sandals,” says Jaime Maxwell-Grant, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s UK and Ireland consulting business. “A lot of people don’t want to wear a tie or a suit.”

This conflict is just the latest global sign of how workers today have been emboldened—and they’re likely to stay that way as long as labor shortages and the “Great Resignation” persist. But the office-attire issue is not simply a matter of comfort—there’s a hefty cost to suiting up. Anyone who has put on a few pandemic pounds may need an entirely new wardrobe. Middle-priced off-the-peg suits can cost £500 ($625); shoes and blouses or shirts only add to the cost. These potential expenses are in addition to the surging costs—of public and private transportation, energy, and food—that worldwide inflation is creating today.

Whether it’s because of suits or childcare issues, leaders face a challenge trying to coax people back to the office. “Executives need to get out there and listen,” Maxwell-Grant says. “The paradigm has already shifted.” He says the smart ones are actively engaging the workforce. “They are asking, ‘What do you want, and what would make you come back?’ It’s about genuinely asking and having a conversation—as opposed to coming up with a policy.” In some cases, that means ditching a rigid dress code for something flexible that reflects the business needs of the situation. “If you’re meeting with clients, then a jacket may be required,” Maxwell-Grant says.

Some industries have completely embraced pandemic-style work arrangements, says Ben Frost, solution architect in Korn Ferry’s Products business. “There are organizations that are okay with working from home and don’t require employees to wear suits,” he says. Frost also points out that not every Brit wants to go casual. For people who are spending only two days a week in the office, formal attire may be appealing. “If I’m going to the office, I might as well dress up, because I’m not wearing it elsewhere,” he says. And there are some industries, such as finance, where suits are far from obsolete. “In the Leadenhall Market, the bankers are back and the suit is not dead,” Frost says. “A lot of people in financial services couldn’t wait to get back.” And they’ve brought their suits with them.