The pandemic has changed people where to work

As more companies impose back-to-work mandates, some people are wondering what it means to present themselves as themselves


Illustrated by Katty Huertas.

Every Monday, Charlotte Ward comes to work with two pairs of metallic hoops.

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 stares and microaggressions she’s endured since going trans in the spring . “Every time I get my gender wrong at work, the hoops get bigger,” she said.

Since returning to his office near Oxnard, California., in April, Ward said she had 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 shimmer and a cat eye or a smokey eye with a bit of silver liner in the corners.

“The further I go on this journey, the less I look like the man whose picture 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 back-to-work mandates, some are considering what it means to present themselves as themselves.

“Formal dress codes are an example of things people no longer want,” said Ritu Bhasin, author and diversity and inclusion expert, adding that such policies can perpetuate systemic biases embedded 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,” 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…that has a impact on everything from the bottom line to creating an environment where people actually feel happy and healthy at work.

To understand how people are reassessing the way they present themselves at work, we asked readers to share some of their new office dress rules. Here is what they told us.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

“I used to spend thousands of dollars on work clothes and dry cleaning. During the pandemic, scrubs have become the norm. Easy to change on arrival at work and before departure. No more bringing covid or other unwanted bugs from work, no more paying for dry cleaning, no more worrying about looking good for the job. Scrubs pair with comfy shoes for performing procedures or running to the ER and change my choice of street or gym clothes when the work day is over. Scrubs adapt to the new reality of working in medicine – protect yourself while you work incredibly hard. Scrubs for work are convenient, comfortable and safe – and my new daily must-have.

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

Learn more about comfort and convenience

“I love dressing up and in my early thirties I really felt like I had found ‘my style’. But I had a baby during the pandemic, and I realized how much clothes are incredibly impractical for those who identify as female. Dresses? High heels? Dry clean only fabrics? Trying to breastfeed and pump that? Chase a toddler? No thanks. I’m a girl in dark colors and pants all the time every day now. And, I’m still covered in toddler schmutz, anyway. Why would I wear something that can’t be immediately thrown in the wash? I won’t . Not anymore!”

Katherine Hauser, 33, counselor at the US Agency for International Development in DC

“I’ve gone from underwired bras to non-wired bras, and I’ve given up on heels completely. If it’s not a comfortable brand of shoe, I don’t wear it! I also wear a lot less make-up, just enough to even out my complexion and a bit of mascara.

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

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

Elizabeth Ferrill, 46, patent attorney in Arlington, Virginia.

Some clothes made don’t matter

“I worked in person during the pandemic, but I’m now much more likely to wear jeans on a normal day and much less likely to wear the business attire I wore in the Before Times. What matters most to me is the quality of my work.

Rebecca Hall, 53, teacher in Cleveland

While others see them as an expression of their identity

“Feet-only flats, jeans unless meeting a client in person, sports bras or wire-free bras for comfort, and never makeup. I identify as a cis woman, but over the past year or so I’ve found myself becoming a little more masculine sartorially. It’s been an interesting change and actually reflects the choices I made during puberty centuries ago. I find myself prioritizing comfort over conforming to female gender expectations in workwear, which helps me perform better and feel more confident as a professional.

Leah Weinberg, 36, nonprofit business consultant in Denver

And a way to embrace change

“At the start of the pandemic, the marketing agency where I work sent us all to work from home, and I also took a break to go to the hair salon. As my hair grew, seeing my roots made me realize that after decades of highlights, I didn’t really know what color my hair was. I decided to take advantage of the break from the office to find out. While I originally started highlighting my dark ash brown hair to add dimension, little by little it was all about looking younger.

“Until then, I had thought that revealing my true hair color would have to wait until retirement. I felt that gray hair in the workplace might conjure up too many anti-boomer stereotypes; it would definitely work against me. in job interviews and maybe also in working with clients or colleagues. Working from home changed that. I could easily show up for daily video calls with a dash of root spray providing ready concealment. for the camera. In this way, I pushed my hair out two to three inches, finding that I liked the bold silver stripe that emerged from my middle part. It reminded me of the white stripe I bleached from rebellious way there at 13.

“As conversations about inclusion and diversity have come to the fore in the pandemic, I’ve seen this as a small way to allow my authentic self to be seen and to challenge stereotypes (starting by mine) on women and aging.”

— Nancy Broe, Atlanta marketing strategist

Many more just want to look and feel their best

“I appreciate again (after the pandemic) wearing beautiful clothes and choosing accessories (jewelry, shoes, scarves, etc.) to spice up my life. I like to ‘decorate’ myself and haven’t done that while working from home. I’m a teacher and I guess I like that aspect of ‘performance’ for my students and colleagues. Don’t get me wrong, I love jeans and sweatshirts, but it got boring and sloppy after a while.

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

“I swapped my entire work wardrobe at the end of 2020 to have something to look forward to after things reopened. It gave me a boost through the darkest winter days, something to look forward to. It is no coincidence that I started a new job in February 2021.”

Danny Groner, 39, marketing director in New York

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