One Economist’s Overly Personal Ponderings on 2020 Office Attire and Related Market Questions

September 7, 2020 | Letters

a large zoom meeting on laptopAuthor: Dr. Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics

Observation: Whelp, We Look Awful By Any Traditional Office Standard

I did not decide this on my own; google “Zoom fashion” or “pandemic fashion”. The New Yorker has an article that uses “slob-chic in the title. I did not invent home workwear, and I was not the first to observe it, although it turns out I am an A+ participant in the movement. 

My Answer: I Suggest We Redefine the Standards or What ‘Awful’ Means. Your Choice.

Notably NOT my answer is that we work to improve our fashion/dressing choices. People are emotionally, physically and socially fatigued. COVID-fatigue from the stress of worrying and being in a constant state of anxiety is real and there are concerns about the resulting mental health consequences (see https://health.ucdavis.edu/health-news/newsroom/covid-fatigue-is-hitting-hard-fighting-it-is-hard-too-says-uc-davis-health-psychologist/2020/07). Thus, as an economist, I am pondering the alternatives and consequences (economically and socially) of this change in behavior – not suggesting I believe I have a ‘right answer’ on how to proceed or can determine what will happen in the future.   

In a departure from thinking about consuming behavior and instead thinking about everyday economics and the allocation of our scarcest resource — time ­­­­— I have been pondering our work-related behaviors given the current circumstances due to COVID-19.

a Twitter reply from Dr. Nicole WidmarI saw this article from Bloomberg Business because Dr. Trey Malone posted it on his Twitter feed. For some reason (I think I was tired?), I responded with a very personal rendition of my lack of professional grooming and attire these days. Even though I probably overshared a bit for a public forum, I stand by my initial response – I am working more, partly by repurposing the 2 hours per day that would have normally been spent getting around and getting ready in the morning, getting my kid ready for school (no need since March; his school was on a laptop until last week and pajamas were working just fine), and commuting to/from or around campus.

Everyone’s experiences and circumstances are different. Perhaps your everyday work life is unchanged, as may be the case for those who work alone, outside in rural areas without much interaction outside the family unit. Perhaps you are working at home the last 5 months and doing it while caring for or schooling children. Perhaps you are working at odd hours, trading off responsibilities with other family members to make economic survival possible. Perhaps you have been showing up at work and interacting with the public all along in a retail food setting or medical office. Perhaps you’re dealing with the extreme lack of childcare which is hobbling (destroying) your ability to perform your job. Even if you feel you are not impacted personally in your work life, the economy is absolutely impacted at this point, and the interconnectedness means that while your everyday life actions may be the same, society is not. Suffice to say, we’re all uniquely impacted with some admittedly facing much more serious consequences than others.

I offer you my semi-informed musings about those of us working from home and attempt to set forth some questions about how we as people allocate our resources in our everyday lives.

Alright Zoombies, The Gig is Up…

Whelp, you look awful. And I am judging you with cat hair on my pants and a stain of unknown origin on my shirt. My kid wiped something (food item, I’m choosing to believe) on me earlier, and it’s still there. Where once we worried about “accessories”, we now have cleared the bar if we’re indeed wearing pants. When is the last time you saw a zipper, let alone used one? Wow — we’ve come (fallen?) a long way in home-meets-work-space quarantine life working attire. There’s an entire revolution coming in retail with respect to clothing, accessories and especially formal wear. Truth be told, the massive reshaping of retail stores was underway in the U.S. long before COVID-19 hit, but we certainly seem to have accelerated it.

Lessened concern on appearances makes sense in light of the weight of an anxiety-inducing health pandemic and economic crisis on people’s minds. How long have you gone without a haircut? That look is now socially expected, maybe even positively perceived at some points in time. With the amount of care/concern a person can give necessarily limited per day, appearance takes a back seat to caring for/feeding children, paying bills, maintaining productivity in your employment and navigating an entirely new world simultaneously (and with limited social support networks, which are in tatters at this point). Which brings to light the question of what expectations for appearances will be going forward. Will our new casual approach become the new norm? Society has gotten more casual (slowly) over time anyway, with many office settings adopting more casual attire than the once-expected suits and ties. What will come over the next few months? Yet to be seen…but an interesting question that will impact a large variety of markets from clothing and accessories to personal grooming to basically all of retail in one way or another.

Time and Space Have Been Redefined

I’ve benefited from a fluid workday schedule, however the lack of daily commute (as I am working from home with a small child out of school, (aka, my coworker) has actually afforded me increased flexibility to get work done early in the morning, which is my preferred time. That aspect has been helpful (for me), although I acknowledge that I was a homebody beforehand and have always preferred my home office for writing compared to any other space. Others are struggling with this aspect significantly; those who work best in offices or coffee shops have been struggling for months (as have the offices and coffee shops in many cases).

Again, It’s Probably Time to Redefine Professional (Or Perhaps We Already Have?)

We’re working from home, reorganizing hours, working while caretaking, perhaps working longer hours to make up for lack of efficiency and interruptions, and normalizing what was once abnormal in working conditions. It’s happening. There are very obvious mental health costs of adjustments, and perhaps, due to increased sustained working hours. Assessment on that front is outside my expertise, but I propose that change is hard, and the situation is harder. Together it’s just plain painful, and that is without direct impacts like loss of employment or health.

But, Wait…

I’ve only scratched a tiny piece of the surface, but the cascading effects of the above mentioned transformations are massive. Long term vacation rentals increased in popularity as socially distanced getaways became increasingly popular. But once physical location wasn’t binding, we began to see discussion of working from somewhere else, like this piece from CNN Travel on working from a vacation rental. For those who may take this to an extreme…Barbados officially launched a 12-month Barbados Welcome stamp where you can move to Barbados for a full year and work remotely. In a press release sent to Insider, Chairman of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc., Sunil Chatrani, said that “the working environment in Barbados definitely enables you to get things done,” and said it has “the fastest fiber internet and mobile services in the Caribbean,” as well as “a range of flexible office space locations.” Now, what are the economic implications of that? Well, for starters there are a variety of questions and amassing press about a potential migration out of expensive cities if residents are no longer tethered geographically, but that is a MUCH bigger question, which leads to even more economic questions…so we’ll stop here.

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