An unintended consequence of open-plan offices has come to light in joint research from Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bedfordshire. According to the study, office environments that throw everyone together into the same space galvanise judgmental attitudes about peoples’ appearances and encourage power dressing as a foil for those perceptions.

In the study, managed by Bedfordshire’s Dr Christina Schwabenland and Ruskin’s Dr Alison Hirst – who served as lead author – a company of 1,000 employees at a local authority were moved from six departmental buildings to shared, open-plan premises. Hirst says that she was inspired to observe the effects of the shift by writers such as Doreen Massey, who argued that space isn’t just physical buildings and the air inside them – it is social: it shapes our thoughts and activities just as we shape it.

Hirst explains: “The building aimed to redesign patterns of interaction and action, making them more fluid. Part of the reason is to show its employees and the outside world that it is a modern, forward-thinking, ambitious place, open to new ideas. To a certain extent it did just that.”

However, she points out, as the firm transferred to the new building, “workers were more conscious of their visibility and often found this unsettling rather than liberating.” She notes: “Women in particular felt anxious about the idea of being constantly watched, and felt they had to dress in a certain way.” It even got to Hirst: “I began to notice how much trouble I was taking over how I dressed, as you feel more on show,” she adds. “Dress code and self-presentation became more important and this was evidenced in my observations.”

This presents a host of interesting questions for bosses to ponder when considering their own firm’s dress codes. Do you deploy a strict, uniform-style dress code to play down difference? Or do you leverage a code to encourage image consciousness and spur competitive behaviour? How should leaders decide what their firm’s dress code should be – or even whether to have one?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “If we put aside the uniformed services – in which a dress code is vital for purposes of identification – we need to acknowledge that people do like to identify themselves with particular social groups through what they’re wearing. This stands out particularly in crowded areas, such as airports or city streets – and it doesn’t only apply to young people. There are a range of factors that have influenced this, such as mass manufacture of garments in developing economies and the ever-cheaper cost of printing.”

On that basis alone, Cooper explains, dress codes are difficult not just to calibrate, but to comply with, too. “I know somebody who went for an interview at a financial services firm,” she says, “and the feedback that she received afterwards indicated that she had worn too much makeup and the wrong type of nail varnish – plus, she should have worn a suit. In many ways, that sounds quite prescriptive. But on the other hand, it was quite useful for that individual: it gave her a sense of whether she wanted to change what she looked like in order to fit in, or find a workplace where however she wanted to dress suited the culture.”

She points out: “how people dress at work tells us an awful lot about what sort of organisation it is. And we know that some professions pride themselves on being informal in their attire. I’m thinking particularly of the creative industries – especially fashion – and there’s almost a caricatured stereotype of a male academic. So, before we get too prescriptive about what we tell our employees to wear or avoid, we should really think carefully about the purpose of the look that we’re projecting. Do we want to present a particular image because we’re customer facing? Do we want to send a message that there are clear boundaries between workwear and leisurewear? If you visit Canary Wharf, for example, one thing that comes across very clearly is how uniform the dress styles are.”

Cooper adds: “anything that plays into the hands of objectification is unacceptable, and I think that is increasingly recognised as the case. But on a more general level – as with any set of prescriptions, policies and protocols – think very carefully about what you are introducing, and why you are introducing it. Don’t just think about the intended outcomes; spend some time considering what could be the unintended outcomes, too, and see if you could mitigate those potential issues before they have a chance to become a problem.

“Thinking back to my acquaintance who went for that financial services job and was told she didn’t look the part: how much talent could we be putting off or turning away if we are overtly prescriptive? However, if the dress code aligns with a particular business objective – and there’s clarity about why it has been introduced – then it will achieve buy-in from staff, because they will understand the purpose it is meant to serve.”

For further thoughts on the healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute