Business vs Casual — My Personal Theory

It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has long been against business attire which has given rise to the Silicon Valley uniform of ironic or nerdy t-shirts, jeans, and the iconic zip-up hoody. If you’re wearing this (super-casual) uniform you’re saying 2 things. 1) You’re an “in the know” techie with experience “disrupting” stuff. 2) You’re so good that you don’t need to conform to social norms. Your abilities speak much louder than what you wear. Or at least that’s what has come to be the justification for the super casual dress code of the valley.

I have a different take on it. I have a theory about how this “uniform” shapes the work day and expectations of the engineers that sport it. You see, I think there is something psychological and sub-conscience about how we present ourselves going on. For the past 3 years I’ve been working as a remote engineer and through that time I’ve created little mind hacks to keep myself productive and in work mode. Things like having a dedicated desk for work and never starting my day without getting dressed as if I was going to the office. These little things help shape my mindset for the day and keep me focused. I realized that things like putting pants on made a large difference in my focus. That’s when it hit me! This can apply to office workers too! I noticed when I put a tattered t-shirt and jeans on, I had trouble transitioning in and out of work mode. However, when I would put on my chinos and a nice shirt (think business casual), my mind would slip directly into work mode. The simple act of dressing more business made me feel more business and when I took it off at the end of the day and exchanged it for my MC-Hammer pants, I had no problem disconnecting. So how does this relate back to the silicon valley “uniform”?

Well, my theory is that the lack of business attire causes a blurring of the work and personal lines. This, in turn, results in the people working more hours and never really disconnecting from work when they get home. After all, the uniform never comes off. I think this results in the current valley culture of delivering at break-neck pace because people don’t stop thinking about how to solve that next problem and often find themselves delivering code changes well into the night.

So what’s the problem with high-productivity? It seems like the “valley uniform” hacks peoples’ minds into a higher level of productivity. How can that be bad? Well, I’ll tell you. It results in a high level of burnout in the industry. I know of more than a couple engineers that quit all together and bought farms to get away from the insane requirements. The thing is, if you can’t turn it off in your mind, you’re going to be working every waking moment whether you want to or not. That can take a serious toll on anyone. You see the curve of productivity is proportional to the burnout curve. At the beginning of the project, you are wildly productive delivering like crazy but as time goes on, the burnout creeps in and the productivity starts to drop sharply. I’ve heard investor friends of mine say that startups are only viable the first 3 or so years. Could this be related to the burnout here? Maybe? You decide. I do know there are a few studies on bursty high-productivity and slower steady productivity and all have pointed to the fact that more breaks and steady stable hours will out perform bursty sessions over time every time. Its just healthier for our brains to break from work. Just look at some of the studies relating to the 30-hour work week. Even companies like Amazon are starting to embrace it!

But again, if you have a 30-hour work week and everyone is wearing their casual clothes, its going to be hard for them to switch off at the end of the day and see a benefit to the reduction in hours.

There is another side to the coin though.. If you’re Peter Thiel casual dress is the best thing in the world! (As he’s been on record saying that he doesn’t consider startups that have founders wearing suits in the pitch meeting). Think about it. When do investors like Peter Thiel make their money? They do it in the first couple of years typically. They help the company financially and expect to see explosive growth to capitalize on. In this model, if everyone is working every waking moment, the likelihood of explosive growth is higher and therefore, as an investor, taking a position that you only talk to 20-something founders in a hoodie makes a great deal of sense. You will get to cash in the productivity curve before it tanks from burnout.

For me, I prefer healthy employees with sharp minds. So for me, I think that business casual or even business dress are the only way to go. We need to get people working that 30-hour work week and disconnecting at the end of the day by stripping off those chinos and that button up shirt and resetting their mind with a healthy amount of rest away from work. This will not only result in much more stable teams and better overall products but I believe it will prove for a much less volatile environment in general. Plus everyone will be much happier.

For more resources on combating burnout check out