Office clothing has become increasingly casual in recent years, helped along by Covid lockdowns and working from home, with ties now in danger of extinction and suits more a fashion statement than work attire for most.
So it’s only fair to ask: where do you draw the line?
A recent poll has found a fairly even split in opinions – between always, sometimes or never – when people were asked if it’s ok to wear shorts to work.
But the drift to comfort has stopped short of a widespread acceptance of shorts in semi-formal – let alone formal – settings.
While there’s usually plenty of chatter about shorts heading into summer – are they getting longer or shorter, brighter or more restrained? – not much of the talk is about styles formal enough to be worn to the office, particularly for workers dealing with the public or clients.
And it appears to be a divisive issue.
Frog Recruitment asked 846 employees about the appropriateness of shorts in the workplace, particularly in corporate offices.
Of those polled, 35% thought it was ok at any time to wear shorts to work, 34% considered it “unprofessional”, and 31% thought it was acceptable on days with no client meetings or interactions.
A similar exercise was carried out in the US during the Northern Hemisphere summer.
A Wall Street Journal/Ipsos poll, published in July, found 41% of respondents thought it was never appropriate for men to wear shorts to the office. They frowned even more sternly on graphic t-shirts (47% never) and open-toed sandals (54% never).
Shorts were considered ‘sometimes appropriate’ to wear to the office by 48% of those polled.
The older the respondents, the less likely they were to find shorts acceptable.
For example, 58% of those 65 and over felt it was never appropriate for a man to wear shorts in a professional office setting. For those under 35, the figure was 27%.
Frog Recruitment managing director Shannon Barlow said more companies were applying the same rules to shorts that they had for skirts or dresses in terms of length and fit.
Other common policies allowed more casual dressing on days when workers weren’t dealing with clients, but some employers expected a more formal dress code for face-to-face interactions.
A good rule of thumb was for workers to consider where they were in their career, where they wanted to go, and who they needed to influence to get there, Barlow said.
It could be to an employer’s advantage to give the OK to shorts in the office; some workers think they work better that way.
While almost half of those in the Frog Recruitment poll didn’t think workers would be more productive if they wore shorts, 36% thought productivity would improve.
One respondent was confident they would work “better and harder” on hot days, given the “ineffective” air-conditioning in their office.
Kirsty Henegan, also from Frog Recruitment, said about 65% of those polled were male, adding that workplace dress codes should ideally be based on professionalism, comfort and the nature of the job, rather than gender distinctions.
The nature of an employee’s interactions with the public or clients could influence the acceptability of shorts. Jobs that involved regular face-to-face interactions with clients or the public may require a more formal dress code to maintain a professional appearance, Henegan said.
If shorts were acceptable, the choice of footwear should align with the overall dress code and the work environment.
“In more casual settings, open-toed shoes, sandals, or sneakers may be acceptable with shorts. However, for industries with a more formal dress code, closed-toe shoes or loafers might be more appropriate,” Henegan said.
She had heard of law firms adopting a “dress for your day” approach, and partners going into the office wearing shorts and sandals or loafers.
“I think NZ has started moving away from corporate formal attire (unless expected for your market) and as long as your dressing in guidelines I think we should free the knees!”
Employers needed to have clear guidelines that took account of both employee comfort and a positive and professional image.
Yang-Yi Goh, style editor at CQ, wrote that before Covid shorts had been the one absolute no-no at the New York office of the men’s style magazine.
That had now changed, and in the summer of 2023, in particular, he had seen a “startling” number of men in shorts at the office.
To find out if the tradition against shorts in the office was changing elsewhere, he informally polled 30 men across a wide range of industries, and found out only nine of them had the option of wearing shorts to work every day.
Even when workers regularly wore t-shirts and jeans, shorts were still considered to be crossing the line.
He asked a Goldman Sachs employee if he would like to be able to wear shorts in the office. The response was a clip from The Sopranos titled: “A don doesn’t wear shorts”.