What next for the NECKTIE and SUIT after COVID-19?
Personally, I like dressing up. It puts me mentally in a better state of mind. I find it hard to be on top of things in jeans and a T-shirt. But I am sometimes jealous of my brother, who works from home and can wear pyjamas.
Increasingly firms are telling staff it’s OK to loosen their collars and change into smart casual wear, believing that is the way to attract and retain staff.
A few days ago, Takeshi Niinami, chief executive of Suntory, the Japanese drinks group, joined a virtual Financial Times conference with other corporate leaders to discuss environmental issues. As I watched him talk about single-use plastics and water recycling, I had a nagging feeling that something looked odd on my computer screen. Finally, I worked it out: Niinami was wearing a tie. Once, that would have been unremarkable; after all, the necktie was a defining symbol of 20th-century business culture.
But one consequence of the Covid-19 lockdown is that it seems to have largely killed off ties. I spotted another one last month on the computerized image of Punit Renjen, the chief executive of consultancy Deloitte. However, most middle-aged men on video calls in recent months have worn open shirts — albeit sometimes with blazers or suits, despite speaking from home. Even some politicians appear to be abandoning the tie.
Former US president Donald Trump sometimes sports an unfeasibly long red one, and Boris Johnson wears them too (when he is not self-isolating). However, Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s former Taoiseach and a GP before he entered politics, is more in tune with the times. In April, he announced plans to “burn the tie”, which he said he hated because they “grab your neck” and are an infection-control risk. Since then, few Irish politicians have been seen wearing one. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s former Taoiseach and a GP before he entered politics, says ties are an infection-control risk Varadkar was not alone in his corona reasoning. Back in March, Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia (and another trained doctor), said he was abandoning the tie because they can “harbor contagious pathogens”.
This is clearly not a problem for someone on a Zoom call in their bedroom. So perhaps a more interesting issue is what the symbolism of that bit of fabric does — or doesn’t — do. One defining trait of the tie is that many associate it with a sense of professionalism: it can confer instant authority and emits a seriousness of purpose — it shows that the wearer wants to uphold public values.
So why aren’t people donning ties more frequently, not less? The obvious answer might be “because I am not in the office”, and thus under less pressure to conform. But that does not entirely hold up: if you were to invent a symbol that a man could use on a video call to show he is professional, it is hard to imagine something quicker and easier than a tie. Most men have cupboards full of them. They can express both status and individuality with color or quirkiness. And on Zoom, they can even be worn with pyjama bottoms. Moreover, if men were to put on a tie for Zoom calls, they could do something else: draw a clear boundary in their own minds between “work” and “home”. This matters, given that one frequent complaint among people who are working from home is that it is so hard to separate leisure from the office. Flexibility makes it very different from other symbols that a man might (or might not) want to invoke on a Zoom call.
I suspect the issue lies in what once made the neckwear so potent: that connection to 20th-century corporate life. Ties are often linked in people’s minds with corporate hierarchies. They invoke a sense of convention, deference and order. Open shirts, by contrast, look young and flexible; they are not quite as scruffy as a Silicon Valley-style T-shirt but are certainly less formal than a tie. The key point about the corporate world is that most executives know it pays to look flexible, open-minded and relaxed right now.
The economy is not like a laptop that can be simply shut down and restarted, with all its programs intact, to get rid of bugs or overcome a crash. When the business world fully restarts after Covid-19, things will be different. The winners in this post-pandemic world will be those who swiftly adapt to a fluid, 21st-century digital economy. It pays to signal that, whether consciously or not, and wearing a strip of silk associated with 20th-century hierarchies may do the opposite. Of course, there will always be some tie holdouts, particularly in more formal office cultures such as Banking and Insurance. A bank executive, for example, tells me that he likes wearing a green one to signal his company’s support for environmental conservation. But I suspect that if he holds another big conference in a year’s time — whether face-to-face or virtual — there will be even fewer ties on display.
Would you feel happier at your bank being addressed by a manager who indeed looks like a professional manager, not someone who popped in from an airplane? At Imana Insurance, red and light blue will do the trick but what if we tried red/light blue branded shirts for day-to-day office operations? Polo shirt and jeans on Fridays maybe?
Teachers wore a suit and tie and were respected. Police would hand out on-the-spot reprimands to us youngsters and we would not dare tell our parents, as they would further reprimand us, never questioning the judgement of the police officer.
Dress should be appropriate for the occasion. A builder would dress differently to say a financial adviser with whom you may trust your life savings. Same to a bus driver and a realtor.
Personally, I think dress codes have to change and mature with the times. Even something as eccentric as a tattoo will develop into an acceptable fashion accessory. The tie will be got rid of in the next 20 or so years. My generation has to die out first, but in 20 years, the suit and tie will look very old-fashioned indeed. Suits will have evolved into something different, more practical, less of a uniform, but still what people perceive as respectful dressing.
I’m looking to see the next generation insurance professional dressed in a plain smart casual code. This resonates well with the future customer.
Raymond Momanyi is the CEO Imana Insurance Agency Kenya Ltd www.imana.co.ke