How millennials have changed uniforms and corporate wear for the better

uniforms

Total Image Group worked with Ford to create a new uniform for staff. Source: supplied.

Walk through the CBD streets during lunchtime on any weekday and you are hard pressed to see a matching top and bottom, let alone a pressed shirt or a suit and tie. The tone of corporate dressing has evolved — and maybe it’s just what we need.

Corporate uniforms serve multiple purposes within an organisation. As a branding vehicle, uniforms can be the first point of branded contact for your customer or serve as a subtle reinforcement. They are also a key employee engagement strategy, building team cohesiveness and loyalty.

Instead of a mental ball and chain that serves to remind that “Big Brother is watching”, a modern uniform should project a feeling of pride and offer a positive affirmation to the employee wearing it daily. This upbeat energy is reflective of the company’s business ethic, and it translates tremendously positively on their branding.

Baby boomers accepted the uniform as the status quo with little push back. Gen X’ers worked hard to shift corporate thinking, to introduce “Casual Fridays” and push the focus on employee engagement over corporate directive. 

Then there are the millennials, and more recently, the zoomers. The youngest participants in our workforce often get a bad rep. Poor work ethic. No loyalty. Wanting it all, with no sense of delayed gratification. However, the grumbling complaints of older generations aren’t exactly unbiased: from another perspective, millennials and zoomers are simply better at expressing their needs, setting professional boundaries, and asserting their rights and self-worth. Want them to wear a uniform? Only on their terms. 

A cohort that confidently self-expresses and demands more for themselves, this new generation of your team (although “new” is maybe a misnomer: many millennials are hitting their 40s, they already make up about 50% of the workforce and that will increase to around 75% by 2025) can teach us all a thing or two about the power of valuing the individual.

Millennials and gen Z are hungry to grow; they thrive on information and can absorb it at a fast rate (millennials were raised on the internet and gen Z were born with an iPad in hand). When looking for their first, or next career move, they are evaluating the employer and the workplace. They are looking for an environment where they will learn and feel valued, where their individual expression will be appreciated and where they can nurture a healthy work-life balance. An organisation with a social conscience is even more attractive.

A shift in “workwear”

This dramatic shift in our workforce has brought with it a dramatic shift in what is considered “workwear”. Running a uniform design house that dresses more than 300,000 people across Australia each day, I have lived this change — and welcomed it with open arms.

Uniforms, today more than ever, honour the staff that are wearing them. Employers are giving their staff a voice during the design and consultation phase of uniform planning. We learn about how individuals move and function within their roles. We look at workplace diversity to adapt for styling preferences across a multi-generational, multi-faceted workforce.

The millennial nod to individuality and self-expression has allowed fashion to play a more central role within corporate dress. To create a uniform that can be tailored to an individual’s shape and cut preferences is critical. We create “core” pieces that mix and match with the rest of the range and inject colour and fun with seasonal uniform updates that might be interchanged every 3-6 months. We are also seeing organisations update uniforms more often, refreshing regularly and overhauling every three years.

Changing the look

The workforce is shifting, as is the customer and client. Social media has undoubtedly solidified its dominance across all industries and introduced a greater sense of corporate accountability — a disgruntled review can reach hundreds of thousands of eyes before you even have the chance to respond — and so uniform is also being leveraged as a visual way to communicate core values within the customer relationship.

A classic example is dressing in the banking sector. Ten years ago, when you walked in a branch it was distinctly gendered suits, with branded ties, stockings, and court shoes. Now, the look is much more relaxed, with mix and match separates. Soft shell jackets, blouses instead of shirts, and ties are optional. This shift isn’t just about the employee and their needs, it’s about saying to the customer: “We’re approachable, we’re easy to deal with and we’re just like you.”

Working with the Ford Motor Group, we were challenged to turn the stereotype of the car salesman on its head. We were met with resistance when presenting the idea that car sales staff should let go of the suit and tie, and instead transition to a relaxed check shirt, with rolled up sleeves. When the client remained dubious about the shift, we delved deeper into our industry research and shared our insights: because the customer was less likely to be wearing a suit to the appointment, dressing to their level would increase trust and decrease barriers.

Adding more style and individuality into workplace uniforms has not been an overnight change, with re-education necessary throughout organisations. We’re only now entering an exciting era where organisations are valuing not only what makes their staff feel empowered and respected, but also what customer needs and expectations are, and how uniform can support it.

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