Dressing down for success Companies say casual days are easy, innovative way to boost morale, productivity

June 11, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

In summer, clients entering Image Dynamics on a Friday know immediately that it is a day unlike any other. Their first clue is the sign announcing: "Casual Day at Image Dynamics."

Then, there is Carolyn Brown in her leggings, Sharon McLewee in black cowboy boots, fringed white cowboy blouse and purple jeans, Barbara Brotman Kaylor in a matching shorts outfit and Tim Windsor in short-sleeves and Levis.

Even Image Dynamics president Phyllis Brotman will let loose on a balmy Friday with tasteful cotton pants and a floral top.

For an advertising and public relations agency committed to creating first and lasting impressions, casual day is a quantum leap in office protocol that is well worth taking, says Ms. Brown, the firm's media relations director. "We feel like we work better," she says. "Whether we're writing or on the phone, it's wonderful, we love it. It's a real morale booster in the summer."

Companies across the country have seized upon casual days (a k a dress down days) as an inexpensive morale booster for employees, whether they spend their work week inventing software, pushing paper or plotting sales strategies.

Why make costly office innovations to improve employee productivity if there is a cheaper way to do it, says Michael Losey, president of the Society for Human Resources Management. When managers "feel they can get the same results with a technique that offers essentially no cost or no risk, and that's casual dress, they jump on it," he says.

The society, which represents 53,000 personnel professionals, has its own casual day for the 100 employees in its Alexandria office. So do firms such as the Clorox Co. in San Francisco, Southwest Airlines in Dallas and the Pillsbury Co. in Minneapolis.

Locally, firms including McCormick & Co, Baltimore Gas and Electric, American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and Maryland Casualty give selected departments the option to have casual days. "We think it's a great idea, an incentive and an added benefit," says Nikki Harmon, an administrative assistant at Maryland Casualty. On dress down days, she and her colleagues feel "more relaxed and casual." And, it cuts down on clothing costs, she says.

Nationally, dress codes in general have relaxed, on account of the recession, baby boomers' nonchalant style and broad recognition that informality can enhance productivity.

In a survey commissioned last year by Levi Strauss & Co., 63 percent of responding personnel professionals believed that casual dressing at work improved morale.

Del Thomas, United Way of Central Maryland's vice president for human resources and management information systems, agrees. When she detects that a casual day is in order, she declares one. "I take a mental temperature of the organization," she says. "We work very hard. When pressure builds up, I think we need something to relieve some of that."

A casual day can also shake out inhibitions that alienate colleagues, Ms. Thomas says. "It gives people a chance to roll up their sleeves and really get involved in something. When you're real dressed up, sometimes your behavior is all dressed up too," she says.

"Friday becomes our creative . . . day," says Brenda Mahaney, president of Classic Communications, a Baltimore advertising and public relations firm. "It's comfortable. We don't feel like we have to be sitting down."

Khaki across the country

Casual days began, as trends often do, on the West Coast, specifically in Silicon Valley where computer companies understood that jeans and bare feet could spawn unfettered creativity among employees in a way that stifling ties, suits and heels could not.

The concept spread to companies where stuffed-shirt habits die hard. There, casual day offered a new twist in the tyranny of corporate fashion.

Employees, accustomed to conforming en masse to written or unwritten formal dress codes, were now encouraged to conform enmasse to casual days, when khakis, sports shirts and jackets, even walking shorts and jeans, were permitted on a limited basis.

Suddenly, company personnel managers found themselves appending a casual dress code to employee handbooks. A consulting firm in Minneapolis produced a video prescribing appropriate casual wear for four work environments, and casual menswear tailored to the workplace made strong retail inroads.

The casual day concept plays neatly into the new, "enlightened" corporate mind-set.

Dress-down days are used frequently as a fund-raising tool, as well. On June 18, 800 companies across the country will take part in United Cerebral Palsy's Casual Day '93. A $5 donation entitles participants to dress casual on that day.

In BG&E's accounting department, casual day participants are required to donate 25 cents to a specific cause. Since casual day began last year, participants have raised $1,300 for both Santa Claus Anonymous and Bea Gaddy's soup kitchen. Currently, they are raising money for the Ronald McDonald House.

Clients come first

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