Careers and Finance

Flip-flops and stretchy pants: Workers look different as they wander back into the office

PITTSBURGH — Picture a mortgage adviser — what is he or she wearing? Probably a suit and polished shoes. Now picture that same employee a year and a half into a pandemic that upended schedules, shuttered offices, and multiplied workloads.

According to Jonathan Freed, a managing partner at Holland Mortgage Advisors, dress pants are out, shorts and flip-flops are in.


Freed said his employees’ workload increased threefold over the pandemic, and some employees were clocking hours almost seven days a week. Much of this work was remote.

“Why would I then go and bust their chops about coming back in the office or what they’re wearing?” he said.


Before the pandemic, employees at Holland Mortgage Advisors dressed in business casual — golf polos, khaki pants, dress shoes. As employees trickle back into the office, that dress code has been axed, and an “anything goes” approach has taken its place.

As offices continue to open their doors, many managers are offering more flexible dress policies that cater to a workforce that has become accustomed to wearing sweatpants, sandals and baggy T-shirts. “I think this is a societal shift in the way we view work, and dress, and all that,” Freed said. “I don’t think this is going back.”

RareMed Solutions, a health care software company, has a select group of employees back in the office, with most still working remotely for the foreseeable future. That means business operations, human resources, and IT workers are still coming in, but dressed down.

“I think we call it more like a smart casual, where it’s much more flexible,” said Dr. Douglas Gebhard, president and general manager of RareMed Solutions. “No one’s wearing dress pants or jackets or dress shirts into the office, even Monday through Thursday.”

Gebhard, a pharmaceutical doctor, says that pre-pandemic, casual Fridays gave employees more freedom from the more formal codes then in place. That’s a tradition that’s long gone.

“What used to be our look on Friday is now pretty much what it is every day, with the exception of if we have a client on site,” he said.

That was probably the main reason for dressing up a bit in the first place. “When people came on site, we were selling the location, the team, the whole environment with people in the office,” Gebhard added.

Now, he says that many meetings with clients have gone virtual, lessening the pressure to button up.


Even without clients on site, Freed believes dress codes were just another part of office politics. “I think it’s psychological. Everyone’s back in the office, everyone’s trying to get ahead in their careers and show the bosses what they can do,” he said.

“I think that’s really where that dress came from. It’s just a part of your career trajectory, it’s a part of your overall being, and now that that is kind of out the window, there’s no reason to continue that.”

Other companies have been flexible, but with some caveats.

At Seegrid Corp., an Enlow, Pennsylvania-based provider of autonomous mobile robots for warehouses, employees who were able to work from home were happy to continue wearing their Seegrid-branded T-shirts and polos on Zoom meetings.

“During summer, I’m sure some employees wore shorts and flip-flops, but the Seegrid T-shirts and polos continued,” said Bud Leeper, people operations leader.

Moving forward, the dress code won’t change, but Leeper has noticed more employees interested in more options of Seegrid-branded apparel.


Clothing stores, too, are noticing employees’ shifting preferences. Last year, Maria McManus’s women’s boutique, Pursuits, was drowning in overstocked goods. “I was over-inundated with bottoms because nobody was buying bottoms. They were still Zoom calling,” she said.

Now, she’s hoping a 50% off sale combined with a return to the office will move inventory.

For customers who want new pants but still desire at-home comfort, she’s careful to stock a line that stretch at the waist. “They pull on, and they’re very comfortable,” McManus said.

At this point last year, her sales were down 54%. McManus said May 2021 was her first normal sales month since the pandemic began, driven by vaccinated Pittsburghers emerging from lockdown and a loyal clientele.

At Larrimor’s, a high-end clothing company Downtown, customers are back to buying — but also altering.

“Right now, there are people who are coming back to their office, whether it’s a few days a week or every day, and they are really looking to refresh their wardrobe,” said co-owner Lisa Slesinger. “So for some of them, that means altering goods they already have because they’ve lost COVID weight or they’ve gained COVID weight.”


During the pandemic, Larrimor’s sold lots of stretchy fabric — “French terry or fleece, cashmere, whatever people wanted,” she added.

Post-pandemic, Slesinger says her customers are looking for attire that’s adaptable. For men, this means sport coats that work for the office, but can be worn with jeans for a transition to a long-awaited night on the town.

The return of formal events has customers reconsidering their all-sweats wardrobe. Fitted dresses for women, matching suits for groomsmen. ‘”People knew this year that they’d finally get to have their big wedding,” Slesinger said.

Meanwhile, since Freed returned to the office with other senior employees, he’s used the extra space to set up a DIY gym.

“I just kind of wear sneakers and go back and work out. I never did that before,” he said. “I myself have changed quite a bit as well — I don’t want to go back either. I think we’re all kind of in the same mindset — if this is the new norm, then we should go with it instead of trying to force people back to the way it was before.”

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