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2020 Update: We still stand by this advice on professionalism in a laid back office, but you may want to check out The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women.
Reader M wonders about professionalism in a laid back office:
I was wondering if you could do a piece regarding how to stay professionally dressed in an office that is very laid-back. I just graduated from college and have found my dream job doing public relations and social media for a small but fast growing company. The owner/president wears PFG shirts and shorts to work everyday. The sales and customer service girls I work with wear Lilly shorts or jeans with cute tops and sandals or sometimes wedges. My previous internships were much more corporate so I have a collection of black dress pants, button down tops and blazers. I’m not sure how to transition to a less corporate environment without falling into a jeans and t-shirt habit! Help?!
I think it’s important to note that professionalism is not just about how you look, but how you act. I’ve known some incredibly professionally-dressed people who were complete disasters to work with, and I’ve known some non-professionally dressed people who were first-rate at what they did. That said, it’s an interesting question, and I’m curious to hear what the readers say. (Pictured above: Office footwear, originally uploaded to Flickr by emmavn.)
* Have fun with accessories. This is my #1 tip, and when I moved from a conservative workplace to a much smaller, laidback office, this was one of the first changes I made. I kept my clothing the same, but out went all of my small pendants and boring rings in classic gems; and in came bolder, more interesting jewelry. Some of my favorite pieces came from MOMA’s museum store, but there are a ton of things to be found on Etsy. For example, this pictured necklace (now sold out; similar) is not something I’d wear to a conservative office, but I think it makes a great statement piece with a boring black or gray sheath dress.
* Wear structured pieces with jeans. For example, all of your old blazers and crisp blouses will look great with jeans and even (I can’t believe I’m recommending this here!) leggings. For my $.02, I’d keep your jeans a dark rinse without holes or other major distressing, and I’d make sure your leggings were opaque opaque opaque. A bit of a heel will help you feel more polished, as well, whether it be high-heeled boots with your leggings or pumps with your jeans.
* Look for more casual, fun versions of things you would have worn before — which may also be more comfortable. For example, instead of buying a wool blazer, buy a less structured sweater blazer. Instead of classic pumps in a neutral, buy a pair of kelly green.
Oh, and I’d advise against the bunny slippers. You may also want to check out this other post about how to fit into an office environment when you’re new, which may or may not be helpful to you, as well as another post comparing attire for conservative offices versus casual offices.
Readers, what are your tips for maintaining professionalism in a laid back office?