People, Person, Blonde, Female, Woman

From Ties to Toes: A Story of Relaxed Dress and Accepting Culture

By Jay Berkenbilt

If you were to walk around the Appian Engineering today, you’d see lots of people dressed in all sorts of ways. Some would be dressed in traditional business casual outfits. A few might even be up a notch from there. But you’d also see quite a few people of all levels of seniority wearing shorts, sandals, t-shirts, and other ultru-casual outfits. Pretty much anything goes as long as it’s not provocative or offensive. If you’d wear it to the mall on the weekend, you could get away with it in Appian Engineering. But it hasn’t always been like that. How did we get that way? Here’s my version of the story.

Real Appian engineers pretending to be doing normal work

Introduction

Hi, everyone. My name is Jay, and I’m a software engineer. I’m 49 years old, and I’ve been at Appian for 7 years. This is my fourth post-college job. I got my first paid programming job at the age of 16, coding on an IBM mainframe and just barely missing the punch card era. One of the things I love best about Appian is our accepting, welcoming, come-as-you-are culture, where you are here because of your brilliant mind and your radiant spirit, and where whatever you bring enriches the whole.

Jay, at standing desk with fancy pad, trying to look normal

If you’ve worked closely with me over the last few years, there are two things you’ve probably noticed. First, I think deeply about everything and love to share my thoughts with anyone who will listen. Second, I really don’t like to wear socks. What do these two things have in common? They are both great qualifications to provide a long view on our super-casual dress code in Engineering! Oh, by the way — and this is important — super-casual dress is not a rule. It’s just accepted along with any other style of dress you may choose.

History: Dress Codes Through the Ages

When I started working out in the real world somewhere around 27 years ago, I had to wear dress shoes, slacks, and a formal shirt, and a tie. And if I had been female, a business suit, slacks, or a skirt with a nice blouse would have been expected. A few years in, the concept of “casual Fridays” snuck into my workplace. At first, casual just meant skipping the tie. Eventually, it meant jeans and a nice shirt. But that’s about as far as it went. One day someone wore sandals to work, which actually prompted a memo (you know, those pieces of paper that got passed around before email was common) reminding everyone about what kind of clothing was appropriate for a business environment. Hint: shorts and sandals were not on the list.

As the years went on, things continued to relax. Within a few years, ties were gone, and every day was like casual Friday used to be. Fridays got more casual still…sneakers, jeans, a t-shirts were the norm. Sandals became okay for women, though, for some reason, still not for men. (I still don’t get that.) Don’t even think about shorts though. And so it continued…the rest of the days looked more like Fridays until this type of dress was normal for all days. But there was still some imaginary line that divided what was in and what was out. Jeans and t-shirts were on one side. Shorts and (for men) sandals were on the other side. And that’s how it was.

Fast forward 15 years or so. When I started at Appian in 2011, Appian’s engineering department’s apparent dress code was pretty much the same as at other places I’d worked. It leaned a little more toward the casual end than the defense contractor I had previously worked for, but it was all pretty much the same with the imaginary line drawn in the same place.

Then Appian started an internship program. At first, it was only a few interns, and all of engineering was just 30 or 40 people. No one told the interns how grown-ups dress for work, and so some of them dressed like college students: t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops. There were a few raised eyebrows. There were even a few closed-door conversations. But it seemed like there was consensus. We wanted our interns to feel like full members of the team. We wanted them to feel like they belong. We wanted them to feel valued. We wanted them to come back as full-timers. We wanted these things because that is how we really are. We have a culture of acceptance, and we see our interns as an important investment in our future, as people who bring something that enriches the whole. Bothering interns about how they dressed didn’t feel like it furthered the goal of creating an accepting culture. So we let it drop. But it was still only the interns.

Then the interns grew up and turned into full-time employees, and guess what? They brought the intern dress code with them. I don’t know whether this bothered anyone or not…I never heard the topic come up again. By the third year, shorts and the occasional flip flop were pretty normal among interns and more junior people, but there were no senior people joining in. I was secretly disappointed. You see, if I could dress however I wanted, I would be wearing shorts and sandals every day because, well, I like to be comfortable, and I really don’t like wearing socks. But I was kind of maybe waiting for someone more senior to send the signal that it was okay for me to play too. And that’s how it was.

The Transition

One morning, my then five-year-old son was getting dressed to go to preschool and, since it was a hot day, he naturally put on shorts. (At that age, he wore shorts all winter, but that’s another story.) Of course, he knew that shorts and sandals were my summer weekend uniform, and so he started in with the interrogation, proving himself to already be a brilliant troubleshooter. Here’s a paraphrased version of our conversation.

Son: “Daddy, it’s such a hot day. Why aren’t you wearing shorts?”

Dad: “Well, I’d like to wear shorts, but people don’t wear shorts at my office.”

Son: “Why?”

Dad: “Actually, that’s not completely true. Some of the younger people wear them. But none of the older ones do.”

Son: “Why?”

Dad: “I’m not really sure. I think it’s just what people expect. You know, there are certain times when people just kind of figure out the rules by looking at what everyone else does.”

Son: “Why?”

Dad: “You know what? I can’t actually think of a good reason.”

So then I thought about it some more because, well, I like to think about things. While my son has always had difficulty in the “look around and figure out the rules” department, it really was true that I couldn’t think of a satisfying reason to give him. Then this amazing thing dawned on me. It turns out I am a senior person. If I wore shorts to work, then a senior person would be wearing shorts, and my wait would be over! My secret fantasy of being supreme leader for a day so that I could decree that, henceforth, shorts and sandals were allowed at work could be realized! Well, all but the supreme leader part. But speaking of leadership, isn’t being a leader less about making decrees and more about taking risks and setting an example? So I put on my shorts and my flip flops, and I went to work, trying to act normal and pretending like I wasn’t nervous.

There may have been a few raised eyebrows. There may have even been a few closed-door conversations. But if there were, I never heard about them. In fact, no one ever said anything to me about it. No one even treated me differently. Not for the whole summer. Or the significant part of fall during which I pretended it was still summer. After a few weeks, I emailed a few people in my direct management chain just to make sure I wasn’t breaking some unwritten rule and everyone was just being too polite to tell me how ridiculous I was because, well, maybe I’d had difficulty in the “look around and figure out the rules” department. But my hunch was pretty much confirmed: no one really cares what anyone else wears. In fact, some people around here will even defend anyone’s right to wear what they want. Just like everyone else, I was hired for my brain and my spirit, not for my clothes. That was three summers ago. Now my everyday summer dress uniform is shorts and sandals, and by the way, a warm day in January counts as summer. And I no longer fantasize about being the supreme leader so I can pass decrees about dress code. I just lead by example, the way the best leaders lead. Now lots of people dress that way. Did they follow my lead? Maybe, but probably not. Most likely, they’re just better in the “look around and figure out the rules” department, and they probably didn’t have to spend anywhere near as much time thinking about it as I did. Things just change, and casual is getting to be the norm. Thank you, interns, for your leadership.

The Moral of the Story

This is all fine, you may be thinking, but is this good for the company? Does this show us to be a progressive, forward-thinking company, or is the very fabric of society decaying around us while we stand by, afraid to act? I’m glad you asked. Here’s what I think.

I think people who are dressed casually are less intimidating and more approachable, especially to younger employees. (I know I can be intimidating since I am, after all, at least ten times more productive than the average five-year-old.) I think casual dress strengthens our meritocracy: people take my ideas seriously because they’re good ideas, not because I’m dressed up. I think it strengthens our welcoming, come-as-you-are culture. If you are transgender or in transition, you are welcomed. If you are wearing religious clothing, you are welcomed. If you have a physical disability, you are welcomed. If you weigh 300 pounds, you are welcomed. If you speak with an accent, you are welcomed. If you like to wear a suit, you are welcomed. If you like to wear shorts and sandals, you are welcomed. Even if you think wearing shorts and sandals is quirky, it’s okay because, if you’re quirky (and a lot of us are), you are welcomed. You are here because of your brilliant mind and your radiant spirit, and you are accepted as you are. Whatever you bring enriches the whole. In my mind, dressing for comfort carries with it no pretense. It says, “I’m comfortable with who I am. I don’t need to hide behind my outfit.” And, as a senior person, if I dress casually, I get to send the additional message that you can still succeed, advance in your career, be respected, and assume a position of leadership without having to wear uncomfortable shoes. But if you feel better adopting a work persona that includes dressing up a bit, or if that’s just what you find to be comfortable, that’s great too! You get to be yourself at Appian! You can control your own image! You are still accepted! And you know what else? I like it so much that I would have a really hard time ever working for a company that forced me to dress a certain way.

But are there any downsides? If it’s so great, why doesn’t everyone do it? Well, it is important to respect the norm and understand how broad the norm is in any environment. Conservative dress is certainly safer in a customer environment or if meeting with people for the first time who may have a different expectation. And if you’re in a place where the expectation is different, conforming to the expectation is a matter of respect. But what about just being around our office (at least in Engineering) where the norm is so broad? What if a customer should happen to walk by and see someone walking around in shorts? Or someone standing around with their shoes off? What would they think? Maybe they’d raise their eyebrows. Maybe they’d even have a closed-door conversation. But if there’s any doubt, we should just let them know that we are an accepting, come-as-you-are kind of place. We hire people for their brilliant minds and radiant spirits, not for their clothes. But most likely, they won’t really care because it turns out most people don’t really care what other people wear. They’ll judge us for our product, our attitudes, our message, and the way we treat them, respecting their individuality and accepting them as they are, allowing whatever they bring to enrich the whole.


From Ties to Toes: A Story of Relaxed Dress and Accepting Culture was originally published in AppianLIFE on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Published on Aug 28, 2018

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