Asia turns to casual dress codes – but not everyone is impressed

Experts question trend for dressing down at work, as traditional businesses struggle with the new rules of etiquette

Flexible dress code policies introduced across Asia are facing an increasing backlash as employers and their staff wrestle with matching cultural and corporate identities to decide the appropriate level of work attire.

While heat and humidity, as well as the needs of the growing number of working women, do provide some rationale for more flexibility in Asian workforces, cultural forces and the fear of missing out on business opportunities seem to be leading some companies to hold on to traditional rules, either real or implicit, for business wear.

Failing to feel productive or not conveying the most professional corporate image to external customers are two of the reasons some companies have been struggling with how to adopt a more relaxed approach.

A recent prominent example of a change in dress code policy is management consultancy PwC Singapore, which in mid-April announced a ‘FlexDress Everyday’ policy, a revised dress code calling for employees to dress responsibly and exercise good judgement, making the right decisions on their appropriate outfit for the day.

“Our new dress code will give the flexibility to our people to dress more comfortably and I’m happy to see a lot more employees – especially working mothers and fathers – take advantage of our flex initiatives,” said Trillion So, human capital leader at PwC Singapore. “We are excited to go against the grain and enable our people to ‘be themselves’ unlocking the diversity each of us brings to the workplace,” she added.

In an interview with People Management, Richa Sharma, manager at Page Personnel Singapore, said dress codes were a hot topic at the moment in the country, especially with the new generation entering the workforce, and many Singaporean organisations are competing with blue chip companies who already offer flexible hours, work-life balance and casual office wardrobe options.

However, she said most businesses are having to juggle a range of interests as they consider changing their policies on dress codes, including psychological effects as well as the company’s image and its vision of business, etiquette, values, standards and punctuality.

“It is a mental game: some people would say that they do not feel as if they are being effective or working at all if they were to come into the office in casuals, and it could therefore affect productivity at work,” Sharma said.

“For managers specifically, there have to be standards which relate the expectations of what is appropriate to wear, which is as important as any employee best practice guide. And if you meet with external parties frequently, then you are representing the company and the image it is looking to portray,” she added.

While some companies, especially within the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), retail, media and IT sectors have already adopted casual dress codes in Singapore, others still struggle to completely implement more dressed-down wardrobe guidelines, Sharma added.

Dr Fang Lee Cooke, a professor of human resource management and Asia Studies at Monash University, Australia, said a flexible dress code may not work well for those employees who are client facing. She gave as an example the so-called ‘Big Four’ accounting companies, of which PwC is one, (Deloitte, EY and KPMG are the others). They are usually very keen to have their employees look smart and professional.

Indeed, she questioned whether many career-minded employees would feel comfortable adopting new options such as FlexDress Everyday. “Employees might be worried that they would look less corporate and professional and it is fair to say that being well-dressed is an integral part of their impression management,” Cooke said.

“In some ways, it is similar to the flexible working time and home office schemes that have been offered but have not been widely adopted by employees, as they fear they would be missing out if they are not actually present at the office or with their senior colleagues when opportunities arise,” Cooke said.

She added that for many firms in Asia, corporate culture remains somewhat hierarchical, with people expecting that the standing of a person be in line with their outer appearance. Also included among the cultural nuances is that being smartly dressed is a gesture to show respect to clients, guests and colleagues.

That said, Cooke sees mixed potential for trends across Asia. She said Japan is likely to witness slow change in casualising dress codes in the corporate environment, owing to work life there being more hierarchical, with a culture that typically expects a high degree of politeness towards others.

Meanwhile, Indian workplaces might actually become more formal and smartly dressed than in the past, owing to the growing affluence of the middle class translating into a desire to impress others through appearance.

“For China, the dress code might become more casual for some, due to the trend towards more self-employment in urban areas,” Cooke suggested.

According to data compiled by Shanghai-based Daxue Consulting for People Management, the status quo for male professionals in Chinese offices is that the acceptance for shorts, sleeveless waistcoats and flip flops [thongs] stands at 44 per cent, 21 per cent and 19 per cent respectively.

For female professionals, short skirts, sandals and exposing cleavage or mini-skirts get 74 per cent, 61 per cent and 39 per cent respectively.

For male office staff, some dressing principles are common: do not wear more than three different colours; ensure the colour of leather shoes, belts and bags is the same; always remove the label on a suit; and do not wear white or nylon socks.

For top managers at foreign-owned and state-owned enterprises, deep colour suits with light colour shirt, deep colour suit pant and leather shoes are most appropriate, whereas mid-level executives are best equipped with deep colour suits and trousers, with a neutral colour shirt, said Daxue Consulting. While some countries may be relaxing, in China, it seems, impressions still count.

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