An organisation is essentially a group of individuals collaborating to accomplish a particular purpose. Thus, its core is primarily influenced by its people and structure, complemented by its culture, goals and processes. It is crucial to recognise that led by the CEO and the leadership team, people constitute the bedrock of any organization.

Studies have established that apparel is a part of the first impression that individuals convey about themselves to the world surrounding them. Therefore, what employees wear at the workplace becomes an important part of their identity. The concept of uniforms dates back centuries in the military and other disciplined forces from the Commanding Officer to the troops.

Over time, this idea found its way to many sectors, including industrial, healthcare, airlines and hospitality, but with one significant difference; only the front line staff and workers wore them.

The middle managers and the leadership team exempted themselves for some reason. There are honourable exceptions of course — the ubiquitous doctor’s white coat with a stethoscope slung around the neck.

Often the argument put forth by senior leadership in some departments in organizations for e.g. sales, marketing and finance that they be exempt can be quickly closed, if the CEO leads by example by wearing the company uniform. The leadership team and the middle managers then do not need to be mandated. They have little option, but to follow.

An organisation however, may have many uniforms — preferably by function and not by hierarchy — as that would defeat the very purpose of a uniform. For e.g. the shop floor and sales and marketing could have different uniforms based on collective choice and functionality, but within the department there would be no distinction. And the display of the organizational brand on the uniform, would be identical across the organization.

Uniforms not only instil a sense of discipline among people, but also foster so much more.

Establish a brand identity: Uniforms play a vital role in shaping the initial impression of both the organization and its people, establishing a consistent brand image of quality service that appeals to clients and customers. They effectively convey the organization’s core identity to a wider audience.

Ensure safety and functionality: Uniforms in various professions serve functional and aesthetic purposes, supporting tasks while presenting a professional image. Tailored uniforms enhance work environments ensuring safety and productivity, especially on the shop floor and in service.

Foster an inclusive culture: When employees follow a consistent dress code, it reinforces inclusivity, a strong sense of belonging within the team, thereby enhancing employee performance and raising the standard of their work.

Become a conversation starter: As CEO, I wore the uniforms of the companies I represented for over two decades. Uniforms serve as a conversation starter in public interactions with customers, clients and people at large. Many CEOs do the same, though one always hopes that more would, else it does seem an opportunity lost.

Impact on the workforce

Fosters a sense of belonging and job satisfaction: Uniform work wear promotes group belonging and teamwork, crucial for organizations reliant on coordination. I was fortunate to experience this in my early career in an Indo-Japanese manufacturing joint venture, where all employees, from the CEO to factory workers, wore role-specific uniforms. Role-specific uniforms foster equality and inclusiveness within the company and is an important lesson for the young.

Enhances team unity and morale and also inspiration for the local community: Uniforms foster camaraderie and team spirit, leading to increased productivity and morale. Wearing high-quality work wear can also make employees feel valued. Young men and women wearing their company’s uniform can also be a source of inspiration for other youngsters in their community.

The curious case of the impact of uniforms: Diversity is crucial in every organisation, with employees from various socio-economic, cultural backgrounds and perspectives. However, these differences can sometimes lead to judgments and disparities. Uniforms serve as a unifying force, harmonizing the workforce and reducing potential inequalities by standardizing attire, particularly in industries with a large employee base. Yet, often executives as mentioned earlier, are often exempt from wearing uniforms creating a perceived stigma. To mitigate such disparities, CEOs could set the example by wearing the company uniform.

Relationship between uniforms, job satisfaction & productivity: A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology introduced the concept of ‘enclothed cognition’, highlighting the systematic influence of clothing on psychological processes. Uniforms play a significant role in employee happiness and self-conception, with research from Coventry University and Murray Uniforms indicating that well-made uniforms can increase workplace happiness by over 20 per cent. Employees themselves believe that their work attire influences their professional image and appearance. A study of several hundred employees, titled “The Effect of Employee Uniforms on Job Satisfaction,” revealed that uniforms boost confidence and credibility. It is reasonable to assume they also influence individual and organizational productivity levels.

To leverage uniforms for improving employee performance, the senior leadership can take several proactive steps. This may include wearing uniforms themselves to promote unity and pride among the workforce. Additionally, organising workshops on the importance of uniforms within the organisation can be beneficial. Exploring the impact of uniforms on workforce dynamics, particularly on morale and productivity, presents an intriguing research opportunity.

However, taken together, it would synergistically benefit national productivity, as it seemingly has in Japan and South Korea. For many, the best part of having a uniform is that one does not have to make choices in selecting what to wear. It just is more efficient!