Your Productivity Lies in Your Clothes

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The clothes we wear at work, during work from home, or in meetings directly affect our productivity. Clothes influence our behavior, confidence, motivation, and thought processes.

The basics first. What happens when you wear uncomfortable clothes? What happens when you wear pants that don’t fit? What happens when you feel self-conscious? Your body and mind are under stress, and quite often pain. And that reduces efficiency. The not-so-basics now.

Clothes are tools by themselves and a part of identity

Work culture has evolved with diversity with factory workers wearing templated clothes and uniforms to act as “one crew” in the factory to the wall-street power-clothing era of the 1990s-2010s, to a start-up and gen-z work culture that balances comfort, uniqueness, and appropriateness.

Clothing is a tool to carry tools. Look at firefighters, plumbers, woodworkers. Their clothes have compartments for using the tools they need to do their job. Give them a suit with no useful pocket, and they’ll fail at their productivity. The industries evolve in a way work clothing adds more value to the work. This is expected. Look at the color of construction worker’s vests. Their clothing indicates the role they have at the construction site; this increases the efficiency of collaboration.

As a civilization, we’ve always known that clothing is tied to identity (personal, professional, and social). Different cultures have different styles of clothing. Different professions have a certain “look”. Clothing brands have indicated status. Look at the fashion industry: we instinctively know clothing ties to identity and mood. Some clothes make us feel like they belong on us. Some clothes make us feel true to ourselves. And some clothes just seem fun.

Richard Branson, of Shark Tank and Virgin Galactic fame, says he just needs a little bit of closet space for his jeans and white shirts, which he will wear every day. No decision-making and makes himself a brand. It’s not just him. Other industry leaders have done the same: Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Ratan Tata, etc., all see the value of wearing the same outfit.

Billionaires aside, the rest of us also benefit from “productivity clothing.”

Let’s look at the psychology of wearing specific clothes and how they affect productivity now.

How & Why clothes affect our productivity & feelings

Researchers have studied clothing and its effect on productivity, emotions, and behavior and formulated 2 theories.

  1. Sociometer theory: It says clothing and fashion directly influence self-esteem because clothing affects how we feel about ourselves, how others value us, and how we express ourselves. Self-esteem is an attitude toward yourself, so the choice of clothing signals whether you see yourself positively or negatively and helps you assess how others might perceive you.
  2. Enclothed cognition: It says that clothing has trickle-down effects on cognition, attitude, behavior, and productivity, and these effects go beyond the symbolic value of clothes. So, clothing essentially affects thoughts, decisions, emotions, motivation, and expectations. They trigger the “role” we are supposed to play at work and trigger memory networks associated with those clothes. These triggers will occur even if you’ve not experienced them but just learned about them via TV shows, celebrities, and everyday experiences. For example, your gym clothes may bring out the internal voice of your first gym teacher.

Examples

Sociometer theory of clothing

  1. You may avoid going to a particular meeting if you feel you are dressed inappropriately for it.
  2. You may act like you are in a position of power if your clothing indicates power.
  3. A sports team member not in their jersey might be considered as a solo player instead of a team player.
  4. You feel more confident in familiar clothes that make you feel good.
  5. You may feel self-conscious and want to escape a situation if your clothes are drawing too much attention.

Enclothed cognition

  1. A person wearing a lab coat might convince you better about a scientific fact than someone impostoring Gene Simmons.
  2. Wearing gym clothes can prime your brain to activate exercise-related memories and show additional motivation toward exercise.
  3. Wearing wedding clothes might guide your conversation toward weddings.
  4. A team looking cohesive because of their uniform will find it easy to have thoughts similar to each other.

The symbolic meaning of clothes and actually wearing them

The idea that clothes affect thought processes (enclothed cognition) was first formally introduced by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky in their paper[1], which showed wearing a lab coat made people more careful and attentive. By comparing the effect of the lab coat as just a lab coat vs. a doctor’s coat, they found that the physical experience of the clothes and the symbolic meaning of the clothes improved their attention.

Other researchers asked a group of 5th-grade students to wear lab coats[2] and a control group without lab coats. Their homeroom teacher delivered a science lecture, and researchers measured students’ interest in science, if others think they are a science person, interest in a science career, and confidence in science. They found lab-coat-wearing students with low self-esteem and parents without a STEM background felt more confident about science and others saw them more as science persons. However, student’s interest in science did not increase because of the labcoat. But here’s a fun set of studies that indicate otherwise – pretending to be Batman can enhance cognition.

In a similar study to the lab coat study,[3] researchers asked participants to wear a tunic that looked like a nurse’s scrub and measured their helpful behavior and empathy (and some more signs of prosocial behavior). One group of participants wore the tunic for what it is (group 1). The other group wore the tunic and acknowledged it as a nurse’s uniform (group 2). The researchers wanted to see if the clothes or the symbolic meaning of clothes brought out more helpful behavior and empathy. Not surprisingly, as per the theory, those who acknowledged the symbolic meaning of the tunic being a nurse’s uniform induced more helpful behavior and empathy.

The original authors said it best in a study that analyzed other studies that tested the theory – what we wear influences how we think, feel, and act.[4]

Clothes need to match the context & expectations

The idea of enclothed cognition does not guarantee that appearances will modify thought processes for the better. In one study[5], wearing glasses and a lab coat together, and just glasses or just a lab coat did not improve scores on an attention task. In fact, those wearing a lab coat made more errors than those that did not. The researchers think the lab coat and glasses were more distracting than useful in creating a positive effect on performance. They also theorize that the context should match for there to be a benefit. In their study, they tested in a classroom, which did not match the look and feel of participants wearing a lab coat. But there may have been a benefit if the study took place in a science or psychology lab instead of a classroom.

They conclude by saying clothing will enhance cognition only if the context matches the clothing – suits in a high-profile meeting, loungewear in a young start-up incubator, sports clothing on a running track, etc. The opposite – a jersey in a meeting room, loungewear at a high-profile dinner restaurant, etc., may be counterproductive.

Another explanation for this is the performance pressure of dressing up. A person who isn’t comfortable in their clothing or doesn’t feel aligned with them may perform worse or become too self-conscious. That’s one reason the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” approach has limits.

The sociometer theory of clothing gives us a comforting prediction – if we dress up to role-play a certain job role, it should enhance our motivation and confidence. There used to be corporate advice during the IT boom, which also re-emerged during the pandemic. “If you are taking a call from work and it’s important, dress like it is important even if no one sees you.” The clothing then puts you into the role – the mindset needed for something important. The same advice is given in another form – if it’s a phone interview and you want the job, dress like you can walk in for that job in the clothes you are in.

Practical effects of the theory

One study[6] tested a prediction of both these theories – clothing will affect behavior at work. In a 10-day field study, employees who wore clothes similar to their coworkers interacted with each other more. This interaction emerges from leveling the playing field and making the whole team feel more cohesive because they look similar and work at the same place. The study also found those who dressed uniquely and made aesthetic choices about their clothing showed higher self-esteem (they felt good about themselves).

More specifically, the study looked at 3 variables of clothing:

  1. Aesthetics: Clothing that looks good and feels good on the body
  2. Conformity: Clothing that is similar to co-workers
  3. Uniqueness: Clothing that stands out

If we look at these 3 variables and make an educated guess about an office that has 15 employees, we can say the following.

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  1. If everyone wears a T-rex costume daily, there will be normal interaction after a few days.
  2. If one person wears a T-rex costume, they may feel great about themselves but not function well in a team by distracting others.
  3. If employees wear clothes that appeal to them and do not distract others, they may feel good about themselves and work well in a team.

The conformity aspect is a slow evolution. Not having a strict dress code opens up opportunities for the whole workforce to slowly adjust their clothing preferences to suit their comfort. Most typically, we see that a few people wearing joggers and tees at work can quickly normalize the idea of wearing casual clothes to work without compromising conformity.

There are more nuances to clothing than just wearing similar clothes as your coworkers (conformity), good-looking clothes (aesthetics), and clothes that stand out (uniqueness).

Nuances in clothing decisions

Temperature: Studies show[7] that office task performance increases with temperatures up to 21-22° C, and decreases with temperatures above 23-24° C. The highest productivity is around 22°C. However, women tend to be more productive at slightly higher temperatures and the gain in their productivity is higher than the loss in men’s productivity as the temperature rises to approximately 29° C. At around 30° C, men and women both lose up to 9 % productivity. So based on how hot or cold it is, clothing choices change. And if employees cannot adequately adjust to the temperature that feels right to them, their productivity drops. There is a bias here. You can only remove so many clothes from your body before you are slapped with sexual harassment. But you can put on more clothes, or different clothes based on requirements. So in some way, the office temperature is biased toward cold.

Comfort: Clothing comfort plays[8] a role too. A study suggests that exam performance is better if the test-taker is physically comfortable. Comfort naturally reduces stress and increases confidence. We know from research[9] that people tend to be more creative when they are in a good mood. This finding actually extends to a lot of extra things (now famously known as the broaden and build theory[10]) – a good mood enhances learning and productivity too, while a negative mood makes thinking rigid. So depending on what you want to achieve at work, you’d be better off choosing comfortable clothing.

Casual vs. formal: Research shows wearing formal attire makes us feel more authoritative, competent, and trustworthy, and casual attire makes us feel more friendly[11]. Others might also feel similarly and affect the nature of productive interactions. For example, dressing well for an important video call might not only impress others but also make your mindset more serious and work-focused. The important thing here is to figure out what works for you and simplify clothing-related decision-making.

Highlights

  • Comfortable and contextually appropriate clothing and feeling good in your clothes will enhance productivity. Uniformed clothing or clothing that matches everyone else’s vibe will enhance teamwork.
  • Your clothing will set your expectations for yourself and from others. Clothes will put you in a “role-play” for a certain mindset or task. Optimize the clothing to get results.

P.S. Dinosaur on cycle photo credit: Photo by Vlad Fonsark: https://www.pexels.com/photo/unrecognizable-person-in-dinosaur-costume-riding-bicycle-4806508/

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