How Your Clothes Affect Your Work Productivity

work productivity

As long as you’re adhering to the office dress code, does it really matter what you wear to work? If you’re telecommuting, does it make a difference if you’re wearing pants or pajamas? Maybe. Researchers have found increasing evidence that how we dress for work can actually affect how productive we are. 

Want to make sure you’re dressed for peak performance? Here are six strategies for building a wardrobe that will help you stay stylish and productive, no matter where you’re working. 

Can Your Pants Make You More Productive?

Can Your Pants Make You More Productive?

As long as you’re adhering to the office dress code, does it really matter what you wear to work? If you’re telecommuting, does it make a difference if you’re wearing pants or pajamas? Maybe. Researchers have found increasing evidence that how we dress for work can actually affect how productive we are. 

Want to make sure you’re dressed for peak performance? Here are six strategies for building a wardrobe that will help you stay stylish and productive, no matter where you’re working. 

Streamline Your Style

Streamline Your Style

For most of us, feeling “right” is more important than feeling fashionable, argues art and fashion historian Ann Hollander in her book, “Sex and Suits.” In other words, the more we feel like we’re dressed appropriately for a context and a particular audience, the more we’re mentally at ease. One way to achieve mental comfort is to define what you wear in alignment with what’s optimal in your workplace — and then stick with it. Less fidgeting and mental preoccupation about whether you’re measuring up aesthetically clears the mind and allows you to focus on the task at hand. 

The simplest way to do that: Create a professional persona for yourself and build a visual identity around it. Are you the ad agency urban sophisticate in all black? The classically elegant financial services professional? Or are you a bohemian entrepreneur in flowy silhouettes? It’s great to think creatively about what you wear, but it’s even better to consciously imagine your workplace-specific ideal look, then streamline and simplify on a daily basis — and leave the creative inspiration for your workflow. Some style options:

1. For the urban sophisticate: Tahari Lanette Sheath Dress, $138
2. For the classic professional: Club Monaco Tuxedo Pleat Silk Shirt, $149
3. For the bohemian entrepreneur: Wayf Long Sleeve Crepe Dress, $59

Create Visual Boundaries

Create Visual Boundaries

Transitioning from home or “off-duty” mode into work mode is both a mental and physical shift — and one in which the physical guides the mental. If you are accustomed to working in an office and only working from home occasionally, it’s important to maintain some consistency in dress, even at home. You may not want to put on your entire suit while in the comfort of your home, but slipping into something that reminds your body that it’s still “at work” minimizes the risk of cleaning your kitchen when you should be focused on work-related tasks. 

Creating a sartorial distinction between when it’s time to work and when it’s time to relax fosters greater focus and efficiency. Have one thing you always wear in work mode. Maybe it’s professional footwear or a collared shirt — anything to nudge your brain into the productivity zone, no matter where you are.

One option: Rodin Shirt, $74

Turn Up the Heat

Turn Up the Heat

There’s a perception that cool temps keep people alert, and many offices stay chilly in both summer and winter. But research shows that it pays to warm up: A Cornell study found that employees make 44 percent more mistakes when temperatures are low (68 degrees) than when they’re at a more optimal room temperature (77 degrees). Why? Because being chilly distracts us. And distractions erode productivity. 

Scarves are a particularly great way to warm up in the office and work equally well tied around the neck or draped across your shoulders to take off the chill.

One option: Anthropologie Dineke Scarf, $68

Get a Confidence Boost

Get a Confidence Boost

Confidence in what you’re doing encourages you to push harder to do good work and exceed expectations — whether it’s a major client pitch or just a team project. So how can you boost everyday confidence with your clothes? Give yourself some lift. One study found that British women wear higher heels than their other European counterparts (3.3 inch average), and their footwear is linked to an increase in confidence and assertiveness. Not buying it? Try it for a day. Wear higher-than-usual heels for a day and see if your confidence — and your productivity — goes up with your stature.   

One classic option: Banana Republic Tatum Pump, $128

Find Your “White Coat”

Find Your “White Coat”

“Enclothed cognition” refers to the influence that clothing has on our psychological state and self-perception. A Northwestern University study that introduced the term concludes that wearing symbolically favorable garments, like a doctor’s white coat, can actually increase attention span. What’s the power-equivalent of a white coat in your industry? A blazer? Some statement jewelry? Identify it and slip into it as often as possible.

One option: Trouve Reversible Lapel Blazer, $98
For a statement piece, try something bold (but budget-friendly): Braided Jet Strands, $36

Casual vs. Formal? Pick the Style That Works for You

Casual vs. Formal? Pick the Style That Works for You

The data is mixed on whether casual or formal dress fosters greater productivity. A study conducted toward the beginning of the casual dress movement indicated that more relaxed dress leads to greater productivity. On the other hand, an amusingly named publication, “America’s Going Down the Tube in a T-Shirt,” revealed the results of a study that offered a laundry list of things that declined with the advent of more casual attire — including employee productivity. And another college study found that while “quality work performance” had not decreased since the relaxing of the campus dress code, “casual dress does not promote task efficiency.”

So does a suit or jeans win the formal vs. casual battle? There’s a point where personal preference, job title, and office culture trump formal studies — as long as what you’re wearing won’t distract you from the work you’re doing.

Going casual? One option: J.Crew Vintage Cotton Tee, $24.50, in heather chrome 
Prefer formal? You can keep this classic in your closet for years: J.Crew Pencil Skirt in Super 120s, $138

Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is the "thinking person's stylist" and the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image-related issues and offers holistic wardrobe and image consulting services.  Find out more and follow her on Twitter.

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