Remote work expanded dramatically during the pandemic, and according to McKinsey research could remain at levels four to five times higher than before.
Remote workers adjusted their daily wardrobe to the reality of appearing as a talking head and shoulders on video calls. “Zoom shirts,” presentable tops kept handy for remote meetings, were paired with comfortable bottoms like sweatpants, pajama bottoms or shorts.
Research has long demonstrated that the clothing we wear affects how other people perceive us. Surprisingly, perhaps, it also can change our own performance. A much-cited study found that subjects performed better on attention related tests while wearing a lab coat. No effect was observed when the garment was described as a “painter’s coat.” The authors called this phenomenon “enclothed cognition.”
(While a recent replication attempt failed to produce the same results, the authors of the original study conclude that the concept of enclothed cognition remains fundamentally valid.)
Lab coats are full of symbolism, but even conventional business clothing can affect the person wearing it. Researchers found that subjects wearing suits were better at abstract thinking than those wearing sweatpants. (The suits increased testosterone levels, too.)
The scientists concluded that the suits made their wearers feel more powerful.
Another study showed that business suits increased dominance, testosterone levels, and negotiation success.
It’s worth noting that the power of a type of clothing is culturally dependent. A business suit may have a different effect on wearers working in a San Francisco startup where executives wear hoodies or a Saudi enterprise where traditional garb is the norm.
What about the Zoom Mullet?
The practice of wearing very casual bottoms with a business-like top, dubbed a “Zoom Mullet,” became common during the pandemic. A recent study found that this pairing might impede the wearer’s performance.
Columbia researchers measured “authenticity, power, and engagement at work” for subjects wearing “work,” “home,” or “mixed” attire while participating in video calls.
Casually dress (“home” condition) increased authenticity and engagement, while business attire did not increase power consistently. The mixed attire showed no benefits and had mostly negative effects on the three variables. This led the researchers to conclude that consistent clothing, whether casual or work, resulted in “enclothed harmony.” Mixed attire produced “enclothed dissonance.”
Casual or Business for Zoom?
The “enclothed” effects on one’s own behavior or performance are likely to pale in comparison to the impression you make on others. You may embody authenticity in a Grateful Dead t-shirt and shorts, but might not convey the image you want if you are connecting with a stuffy CEO. Choose your visible attire to suit the situation.
The most important takeaways from the new study are:
1) Don’t be afraid to be visibly casual when appropriate, it makes you more authentic and engaging.
2) For important virtual meetings, minimize “enclothed dissonance” by matching your on-camera and off-camera clothing.