Is Formality Dead?

With casual dress codes and first names becoming the norm in offices, is there still a place for formality in the workplace?


One of the less discussed innovations the tech industry brought about has been the rise of the informal workplace. From casual Fridays to flat organizations (ones with no middle management between staff and execs), the trend is very much moving away from formality.

This is, of course, embedded into the very tech they produce, which has become influential to all of our lives. The way we talk to each other in writing has changed a lot since our handwritten letter days. Millennials and other future generations raised in this informal world are much less likely to understand the point of the formal business setting than ever before.

Personally, I think its great, and David Heinemeier Hansson agrees. The creator of Ruby on Rails, in a blog titled ' The End Of Formality', likens it to 'a virus that infects the productive tissue of an organization. The symptoms are stiffness, stuffiness, and inflexibility – its origin never with those who do but with those that don’t.'

And therein lies one of the biggest issues most people have with formality in the workplace; it's based on tradition and not practicality. If you sit in front of a screen all day, how exactly does being in a three-piece suit help you do that?

There are more reasons to love informality than simply not having to stock up on pocket squares, though. A decrease in formality also means an increase in individuality. People are more comfortable sharing their honest views, opinions, and ideas without having to constantly censor themselves.

Without the formal structure of 'this is just how things are done here', people are free to find the right work-life balance for them. This has led to innovations like 'work out while you work' to combat the sedentary lifestyle that comes with office employment. Some offices are trying out mini exercise bikes underneath desks, while Schipol Airport in Amsterdam has even installed some for travelers. As Janet from accounting keeps saying from behind her standing desk, 'SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING!'

This is a priority for young people entering the workplace. According to a report from Mintel on American lifestyles, 63% of young people want a better work/life balance, versus the national average of 59%. This is why studies about how napping at work, which would have been laughed at 20 years ago, are being seriously considered by many employers.

So why has it lasted so long?

It might surprise some, but there is a very practical reason for formality in business, and the reason has only intensified in recent years as the world has shrunk - common ground. When people from different countries, who speak different languages meet, it is their suits and handshakes that bridge the cultural gap.

The other thing to take into consideration is the fact that a lot of the world just isn't as chilled as Americans from Silicon Valley. In cultures like the Japanese or Koreans, it is still very normal to show bosses a fair bit of reverence. To some, the idea of going to work in jeans would be taken as a joke.

When these individuals enter an American workplace, they usually don't sigh with relief at the idea that they have to call their managers by their first name. They instead grow uncomfortable, as this feels unnatural and disrespectful to them. For some, a sense of formality means a sense of familiarity. It can also cause confusion as company hierarchies become unclear when everyone just fist-bumps their way through an office.


The informality trend is moving in one direction and there is little that will change that, which is probably a good thing. However, management needs to ask themselves whether this is the best move for their employees based on the kind of business they are. There are real benefits to being smartly dressed if you work in customer service or hospitality, as it is still seen as a sign of professionalism. However, just because you need to be formal in one way, doesn't mean you can't be informal in others. Sometimes just being open to new ideas can encourage staff.

So, if you work in a fast-paced startup or a company where little interfacing with the general public is done, there is no real reason to not go casual anymore - it's widely accepted and even often expected. However, if you work in a traditional company where a sense of formality in appearance might still be interpreted as a sign of excellence by your customers, maybe hold off on the hoodies for now. 

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