By Hannah Beasley, Non-Desk Matters.
A few years ago, I visited a manufacturing plant that was just over a year old. In a historically difficult industry, the leadership at this plant wanted to implement new and innovative strategies for increasing productivity and improving the culture. Older facilities producing similar outputs had struggled for decades with difficult union relations, hostile work environments, and as a result, lower productivity.
This team of leaders left no stone unturned: they utilized state-of-the-art vending machines to help manage inventory of small parts, implemented new technology to streamline communication, and utilized the latest and greatest in sensor technology to measure all aspects of their productivity.
But perhaps the thing that struck me the most about their innovative approach was their uniforms.
Their production workforce wore uniforms similar to what you might see at any manufacturing plant, except that they were updated and looked nicer that most. The salaried managers also wore uniforms — not just the production managers, but every single office-based employee from accounting to marketing. This is highly unusual. While these weren’t the exact same uniforms as the production workforce, this approach was part of what they called “common dress” — it was practical, professional, and helpful in building a culture of unity across the entire organization.
It’s likely that your current job requires — at minimum — a dress code. If there’s not a dress code in your office, you might have found yourself wishing one existed after seeing a coworker make a questionable attire choice. Uniforms in the workplace have been around for thousands of years. Many companies adopt them to help ensure a consistent and professional appearance, prevent dress issues, and minimize safety risks.
But uniforms can also create a divide, as they indicate a clear separation between your non-desk or hourly workforce and salaried or desk-based workers.
You’re giving significant freedoms to your desk-based workers and communicating “I trust you with this choice,” while you’re limiting the freedoms of your non-desk workforce. The terms “blue collar” and “white collar” have been used to create a distinction between workforce classes since the early 20th century (Source). It’s likely that your hourly employees already have some animosity towards management, and uniform distinctions can sometimes exasperate this issue.
Have you ever considered the impact that uniforms are having on your company culture?
American Airlines’ uniforms made the news recently for being notoriously uncomfortable. “Flight attendants reported hives, headaches and rashes after wearing the new uniforms,” and with over 3000 complaints reported to the union, the airline had to take action. Not only was this an expensive mistake, but it no doubt made employees feel undervalued in what seemed to be a cheaper alternative to uniforms.
But, if executed properly, uniforms can alternatively help promote equality in the workforce.
“One of the facts about uniforms is that as the name suggests, uniform in literal sense means to be same throughout. That is the basic function of a uniform, that is the employees should be seen same in an organisation irrespective of their social status. It doesn’t matter if they are rich or poor, while working for a company, everyone is treated just the same. Hence, uniform brings people from all backgrounds onto one platform.” (Source)
While there is no perfect solution for every workforce, it’s worth considering whether your uniforms are hurting or helping your culture and your employees’ productivity. Ask your employees how they feel about their uniforms, get real feedback, and consider taking an innovative approach to promote unity and equality in your organization.
This article was originally published on N0n-Desk Matters.