CPA INSIDER

Will sweatpants come to the office when we return?

Accounting firms offer tips on how to ease teams back into acceptable office attire while preserving comfort.
By Teri Saylor

As American workers, including those at accounting firms, transition back into their office, one of the unexpected challenges has been figuring out what to wear.

For more than a year now, attire such as pajamas, leisurewear, sweatpants, and comfy T-shirts have replaced the khakis and skirts typically worn most days at many offices. As long as we remained seated for online conferences and Zoom meetings, we've been getting away with dressing for business above screen level and for vacation below.

Some changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — such as more remote work and an increased use of technology in place of more expensive traveling — could outlast the pandemic. But what about the less formal "dress codes" people adopted while working from home? Will workplaces, especially those that had already loosened up by enacting "dress for your day" policies, now continue to for even more informal clothing?

More directly: Will we be wearing sweatpants — and related home office "couture" — in the actual workplace?

Unsurprisingly, the move toward less formal clothing seems to have finally hit a wall at athleisure. Employees at most firms won't be able to meet clients while dressed for the gym. But HR professionals at several CPA firms across the country are offering a few ideas on how to ease their teams back into office mode while preserving comfort.  

Offer choices. Kimberly Hensarling, director of talent and human resources in the Atlanta office of Windham Brannon, recalls activities commemorating the firm's 60th anniversary four years ago. Windham Brannon, which has 170 employees, celebrated for an entire year, with special events planned each month.

"We decided for July we were going to try 'dress for your day,'" she said.

Dress for your day, an idea that is growing in popularity, lets employees choose their attire based on whether they are seeing clients or doing office work. "We gave our employees guidelines that outlined preferred casual wear and asked that they refrain from being too relaxed, such as wearing jeans with holes in them or clothing that is too revealing," Hensarling said. When the month ended, firm leaders realized the employees loved dressing for their day so much that they decided to keep the policy in place.

For those times when a client calls with an emergency requiring a face-to-face meeting, employees keep go-bags packed in their offices or more professional attire hanging on the back of their office doors. "I think it just goes back to the professional image we want to convey, that we want our employees to always look presentable," Hensarling said.

Consider client expectations. At Gumbiner Savett, a Santa Monica, Calif., firm recently merged with BPM LLP, staff have been encouraged to wear clothing that reflects their clients' work environment, said Irene Valverde, director of business development. Her firm encourages employees to check in with their clients' dress policies before visiting.

"We encourage them to determine whether they need to dress up or if they can dress more casually, as long as they adhere to the client's dress code," she said.

The firm draws the line at sweatpants and has yet to field any questions from staff about post-pandemic dress codes, but she said a few who have been working in the office have been more casual than usual because they are not meeting with clients. "We already work in a casual environment, and when we return, the plan is to come back to pretty much the same dress code we had before," Valverde said.

Office culture counts. At James Moore, office culture is paramount. The firm's 200 employees rely on advice from culture committees in all four of its Florida offices, and they are tasked with planning events, mentoring new hires, and reviewing office policies, including dress codes, said human resources director Julie Kniseley. "Our culture is incredibly important to us, and we weave it into our daily lives."

While the firm has not made the leap to allowing employees to wear sweatpants to work, four years ago, the culture committee decided to join other professional businesses that added a dress-for-your-day option and gave their employees more discretion on their office attire with guidelines ranging from professional attire to business casual to jeans.

James Moore touts this clothing policy to attract younger employees at job fairs, college career days, and student leadership summits. The firm's recruiters, who dress in jeans and polo shirts at these events, believe their casual attire appeals to potential new hires and helps them feel more relaxed and comfortable. Their clothing also signals the firm is a great place to work. "We want to appear professional, but we also want to demonstrate our relaxed culture in a visual way," Kniseley said.

Dress casual for charity. While CPA firms may not be ready to convert their dress-for-your-day policies to include sweatpants or leisurewear, some are not ruling out building an ultra-casual day into their fundraising efforts.

At James Moore, the culture committee has further relaxed its dress code for charity.

When the firm moved to dress-for-your-day several years ago, the managers wanted to continue raising money for charity which they used to do on their casual Fridays. Now employees can wear what they want in exchange for a donation.

"We've seen everything from pajamas to costumes and, since it's Florida, lots of shorts and flip-flops," Kniseley said.

Reset expectations for returning to the office. Before bringing staff back to an office environment, it is important to let them know what to expect when they return. At BPM, most of the staff and professionals are eager to return to the office, Valverde said. "The majority of our group wants to come back at least a few days a week because they believe they are more efficient in the office," she said.

Management is tasked with reestablishing policies that help employees feel comfortable returning, she added. She advises firm managers to listen to employees and set dress code policies for returning to the office that work for the majority of the team, including management.

"A happy, comfortable staff usually makes for a more productive staff and a less stressful work environment," she said.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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