Is workwear an outdated notion?
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Is workwear an outdated notion?

As a recent survey finds just 10% of workers get dressed for their working day before changing into more comfortable clothes later, Insider Engage asks, will the (re)insurance market turn its back on formal business attire for good post Covid-19?

Changing workwear.jpg
Credit: Charles Tyrwhitt

In the new world of post-lockdown working, there has been one very visible change to the men and women of (re)insurance – a noticeable dressing down of appearances in meetings.

As we continue to embrace working from home – be that from your kitchen table, a spare room or the garden shed – many of the market’s executives have taken advantage of the more relaxed nature of our new office environments.

Once renowned in the City of London for being the smartest-dressed members of financial services, with Lloyd’s of London only relaxing its dress code in its very recent past, the last few months have seen brokers and underwriters ditch their jackets, ties, and even their shirts in favour of sports and leisurewear.

Some still believe that our industry will buck the trend to ditch the formalwear full time. A recent poll from market research group NPD found just 10% of people get dressed for working from home at the start of the day before changing into comfortable clothes later, but dry cleaning and delivery service Laundrapp is convinced our market will return to its suited ways in the foreseeable.

“A large proportion of our customers work in financial services and we are already seeing the Jermyn Street shirts and the Saville Row suits reappearing through our on-demand Laundry service,” it says.

“Our customers are dividing into two clear tribes: those that are desperate to get back into fully suited and booted office attire and those that want to cling on to their new found leisurewear habits and are trying to introduce dress down Fridays throughout the week. For our customers in the insurance business, our bet is that the pin-stripe will win out over the elasticated pants.”

Others aren’t so sure, however. Bart Patrick, managing director of Duck Creek Technologies, wrote an op-ed about the issue three months into lockdown, arguing this could be the turning point the market needs to shrug off its stuffy image and encourage young talent into EC3.

“To my mind, the death of the suit would be a welcome outcome of this crisis. It is the single symbol of everything that represents the failure to change working practices, presenteeism, all the buttoned-up rubbish,” he wrote at the time.

“It is a potent reminder of the persistent intransigence of the ‘square mile’. Of the London market’s inability to change and adapt.”

It’s a viewpoint he maintains today. “People should be allowed, within reason, to wear whatever they feel comfortable in,” he begins.

“The reason I wrote the article was that we are going through a huge amount of change, and I’ve become no less professional because I'm wearing a Harlequins top. I'm actually the same person on the inside; I have the same content. I express myself in the same way. And surely these days we should be listening to the person, not looking at the way that they're attired or the way that they look. That seems very antiquated.”

Patrick isn’t exactly anti-suits – indeed, he’s comfortable wearing one, albeit in a traditional country tweed rather than a formal dark hue – but it’s his choice to wear one, and that’s the point.

“I'm not suggesting that London bins everything, but I am suggesting a more flexible approach,” he says. “It’s about creating a culture that treats people like adults.”

Trusting your staff

This is a point that resonated widely with others. Megan Furlano, vice president of talent acquisition at Argo Group US, says her firm trusts people to do the right thing and encourages them to “dress for your day”.

In some instances, that still means wearing a suit where it is “appropriate for certain business meetings and in formal settings”, but you can still look smart without going the whole formal hog.

“What you wear does not make you more or less intelligent. The majority of people you meet have some unconscious biases and may not realise that they are judging you based on your appearance,” says Furlano.

“Use your best judgement when deciding what to wear. A neat, clean appearance that appropriately reflects the professional setting will always work in your favour; the rest is up to how well you listen and clearly convey your experience and expertise.”

Markel International also changed its dress code at the beginning of last year, encouraging staff to dress however they thought was appropriate for their working day.

Joanna Browning, HR and communications director for the firm, says interestingly that while there was initially no resistance to the change of attire at the top level when it was suggested, once the decision was made “the nerves started to kick in” further down the organisation, resulting in the creation of a formal policy with “three-quarters of a page of dos and don’ts”.

But fairly quickly, that exercise was slimmed down into a single line of “we trust you to exercise good judgment and common sense”.

“That has truly been the reality,” she continues. “We've seen people being very comfortable, in some meetings, to be sitting in jeans next to someone wearing a suit – because the whole point of this is what do I feel comfortable wearing and what's right for my day.”

But what about the old adages of mirroring your clients, or dressing for the job that you want?

“Always be your authentic self,” advises Furlano. “Have a conversation with your sponsor, mentor, or manager to obtain critical feedback about the way that you portray yourself to others. You build your brand in so many ways, well beyond your attire, however, people still have a visual impression of you.

“You will learn that dressing the part is an ‘accessory’ to the full package presentation of all your contributions to the project and to the team. If the job you want is with another company or in another industry, invest the time in asking for a meeting to introduce yourself, express your interest, and nurture that relationship. With commitment and diligence, the job you want will follow.”

Attracting new talent

Many respondents also talked about the need to change the outward representation of the marketplace. Stuffy, expensive-looking suits could put off the next generation from applying – especially if they are from poorer backgrounds.

“I remember when I joined the market, I owned three parts of nothing. And I had to wear a suit and tie, a shirt,” says Duck Creek Technologies’ Patrick.

“That was actually quite expensive and I remember it being a bit of a problem. [You needed] two to three suits and a range a shirts to wear every week, when you're earning sort of £12,000 a year, it was difficult.”

It’s also about changing the culture in the workplace, making it a more dynamic, vibrant place to come to work.

Patrick cited UK car and home specialist Admiral was as one carrier that was reaping the benefits of a more relaxed dress code, and the impact was immediate when he walked into its office.

“You go into these places and there's so much energy,” he says. “Take Admiral in Cardiff, there's no dress code there, and you've got this young, vibrant, diverse, really energetic business.

“You just have to look into the place to build the culture different, it is clearly being reflected through the business and by the way that comes down from the top. I really like that approach.”

It is something other sectors cottoned onto long ago, including technology. Patrick notes that for technologists, the emphasis is on the products you produce and the innovations you create.

“If you're judging people by the fact they didn’t turn up in a suit, and dismiss that innovative person, your company will struggle in the next decade,” he expands.

Richard Dudley, Aon’s CEO Global Broking Centre UK, agrees. “I think it's a symbol of some of the things that hold us back, not what differentiates us or makes us distinctive in a positive way.”

The whole process of working from home is stimulating the industry to think about its roles in different ways, and to think about the different people who can fill those roles, he continues.

“They don't need to wear a suit and tie to be able to perform their role accurately. We've got so much talent out there in the UK, a lot of which is going to be at risk, employment-wise, because of what's happening [with Covid-19].

“There's a lot of bright people out there; there's so much talent. And our industry is crying out for it. This is the moment for me. The moment where London should reboot and reclaim its role as a place of innovation in terms of product and service. We're pretty good at it now, but we're nowhere near the same sort of beacon that we were 50 years ago. And we could be.”