Lifestyle

The pandemic has changed what people where to work

As more companies impose return-to-office mandates, some people are considering what it means to show up as their true selves

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Illustrations by Katty Huertas.

Every Monday, Charlotte Ward shows up to work wearing two sets of metallic hoop earrings.

For the 41-year-old engineering tech, the stacked hoops are a subtle statement about her identity — a way to reaffirm her gender and combat the lingering looks and microaggressions she’s experienced since coming out as trans in the spring. “Each time I’m misgendered at work, the hoops get larger,” she said.

Since returning to her office near Oxnard, Calif., in April, Ward said she has gradually become more expressive in her gender identity. She loves wearing big flowy skirts, painting her nails and perfecting her favorite makeup looks — a touch of glitter, a clear gloss, and a sharp cat eye or smoky eye with a bit of silver liner at the corners.

“The farther I progress on this journey, the less I resemble the man whose photo is still on my work badge,” she said.

For many like Ward, the coronavirus pandemic has created space for people to explore their identities in and out of the workplace. And as more companies impose return-to-office mandates, some are considering what it means to show up as their true selves.

“Formal dress codes are an example of things that people don’t want anymore,” said Ritu Bhasin, an author and diversity and inclusion expert, adding that such policies can perpetrate systemic biases entrenched in workplace culture.

What would your ideal office look like? 22 readers told us.

“We know that when we have leaders who cultivate authenticity in the workplace, it invites others to do the same back,” Bhasin said. “And when we feel seen, when we feel connected to ourselves and others in work environments, we’re more likely to show up, work harder, be more engaged … it impacts everything from the bottom line to creating an environment where people actually feel happy and healthy in the workplace.”

To understand how people are reevaluating how they show up to work, we asked readers to share a few of their new rules of office attire. Here’s what they told us.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

“I used to spend thousands on professional attire and dry cleaning. During the pandemic, scrubs became the norm. Easy to change on arrival at work and before departure. No more bringing covid or other unwanted bugs back from work, no more paying for dry cleaning, no more worrying about looking good for work. Scrubs pair with shoes that are comfortable for doing procedures or running to emergencies and allow for a change into my choice of street or athletic clothes after the workday is done. Scrubs fit the new reality of work in medicine — keep yourself safe while you work incredibly hard. Scrubs for work are practical, comfortable and safe — and my new daily must.”

Micah Saste, 47, a physician in San Mateo County, Calif.

More about comfort and convenience

“I love getting dressed and in my early 30s really felt like I found ‘my style.’ But I had a baby over the pandemic, and I’ve come to realize just how incredibly impractical clothing is for those who identify as women. Dresses? High heels? Dry-clean-only fabrics? Trying to breastfeed and pump in that? Chasing a toddler around? No, thank you. I’m a dark-colors-and-pants-all-the-time-every-day kind of gal now. And, I’m always covered in toddler schmutz, anyway. Why would I ever wear anything that couldn’t immediately be tossed in the wash? I won’t. Not anymore!”

Katherine Hauser, 33, an adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development in D.C.

“I switched from underwire bras to wireless bras, and I ditched heels completely. If it is not a comfortable brand of shoe, I am not wearing it! I’m also wearing much less makeup — just enough to even out my skin tone and a bit of mascara.”

Autumn Gonzales, 44, a teacher in Portland, Ore.

“No more heels. I bought three pairs of Allbirds flats (black, gray and light pink). I wear them exclusively at work now. I also ditched the clothes that I didn’t like. Going to work only a few times a week means that I don’t have to wear the ‘second choice’ pieces anymore. I also stopped buying new pieces, at least for now. I have enjoyed this respite from shopping.”

Elizabeth Ferrill, 46, a patent attorney in Arlington, Va.

Some realized clothes don’t matter

“I worked in person through the pandemic, but I am now far more likely to wear jeans on a regular day and far less likely to wear the professional attire I wore in the Before Times. What’s more important to me is the quality of my work.

Rebecca Hall, 53, a teacher in Cleveland

While others see them as an expression of their identity

“Flats only on my feet, jeans unless meeting a client in person, sports bras or underwire-free bras for comfort, and no makeup ever. I identify as a cis woman, but over the last year or so, I’ve found myself shifting a little more masculine on the attire front. It’s been an interesting shift and actually mirrors the choices I made while going through puberty ages ago. I find myself prioritizing comfort over conforming to femme gender expectations around work clothes, which helps me perform better and feel more confident as a professional.”

Leah Weinberg, 36, a nonprofit business consultant in Denver

And a way to embrace change

“At the beginning of the pandemic, the marketing agency where I work sent us all to work from home, and I also took a break from heading to the hair salon. As my hair grew out, seeing my roots made me realize that after decades of highlighting, I didn’t actually know what color my hair was anymore. I decided to use the break from the office to find out. While originally I’d started highlighting my dark ash brown hair to add dimension, gradually it had become about looking youthful.

“Up until then, I had told myself that revealing my true hair color would have to wait until retirement. I felt gray hair in the workplace could evoke too many anti-boomer stereotypes; certainly it would work against me in job interviews and possibly in working with clients or colleagues as well. Working from home changed that. I could easily show up for daily video calls with a dash of root spray providing a camera-ready coverup. In that way, I grew my hair out two to three inches, finding I liked the bold silver stripe that emerged from my center part. It reminded me of the white strip I’d rebelliously bleached there at age 13.

“As conversations on inclusion and diversity came to the fore in the pandemic, I saw this as a small way to allow my authentic self to be seen and to challenge stereotypes (starting with my own) about women and aging.”

— Nancy Broe, a marketing strategist in Atlanta

Many more just want to look and feel their best

“I appreciate again (after the pandemic) wearing nice clothes and choosing accessories (jewelry, shoes, scarves, etc.) to spice up my life. I enjoy ‘decorating’ myself and didn’t do that while working from home. I am a teacher and I guess I like that aspect of ‘performance’ for my students and colleagues. Don’t get me wrong — I like jeans and sweats, but it became tiresome and slobby after a while.”

Janelle Hare, 52, a professor in Morehead, Ky.

“I swapped out my whole work wardrobe in late 2020 to have something to look forward to after things opened up again. It gave me a lift through the darkest winter days, something to look forward to. It’s not a coincidence that I began a new job in February 2021.”

Danny Groner, 39, a marketing director in New York

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