Employees in the UK are more used to wearing extra layers than taking them off, so the recent heatwave in which temperatures have been hotter than Istanbul, Los Angeles and the Bahamas has put the rules of office attire into question; is it ok for employees to relax their dress codes and come into work in their flip flops and summer shorts?

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is calling upon employers to temporarily relax their workplace dress codes so that staff can work through the heatwave as comfortably as possible. Whether your office has adequate air conditioning will have a bearing; because if all employees work is conducted within the confines of an air-conditioned office, then it is reasonable to expect employees to wear smart clothing with layers so that as soon as they go out of the office during their break, they do not get overheated but can layer up to combat a possible chill that air conditioning often brings.

Whilst staff are not expected to work when the temperature drops below 16°C (or 13°C if they do physically demanding work) there are no restrictions for when the workplace becomes too hot. The TUC would like to see a change in the law to introduce a new maximum indoor temperature, set at 30°C – or 27°C for those doing strenuous jobs – with employers obliged to adopt cooling measures when the workplace temperature hits 24°C.

Commenting, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “While many of us will welcome the sunshine and warm temperatures this week, working in sweltering conditions can be unbearable and dangerous.

“Employers can give their staff a break by relaxing dress code rules temporarily and ensuring staff doing outside work are protected.”

Of course, culture comes into play a great deal here. If you are a small business that does not need to adhere to the rigid rules of a corporate business then most business owners in this heat will feel comfortable with their employees dressing down a little. But if you work for a professional business then it becomes a little more complicated, after all you may be faced with the question of whether it is appropriate for your employees to attend client-facing meetings with a dress-down code and you will need to be more careful about communicating the specifics of what a relaxed dress code means.

Commenting, O’Grady said:

“Obviously shorts and flip flops won’t be the right attire for all workers, but no one should be made to suffer unnecessarily in the heat for the sake of appearances.”

Of course, it can be easier for women to dress down but still look smart by swapping wools and heavy cotton for lighter weight fabrics and open toed shoes, but men working in the professional services are often expected to wear a suit and tie with a long-sleeved shirt. The TUC is urging men to ditch their suits altogether in favour of cooler clothing.

A liberal smattering of common sense is required here. Here’s our guide to help you take the heat out of a ‘dress down’ code:

  • Communicate: set out the required standards and tell people about it, ensuring it is all inclusive and no-one has been left out of the circular.
  • Ensure that staff are reminded to take plenty of fluids on board and wear sunscreen.
  • Encourage employees to stay out of the sun during its hottest period, 11am – 3pm.
  • Allow staff to work elsewhere if a room is without adequate air conditioning or ventilation.
  • Let the boss dress down and the rest will follow: whilst you may have communicated to staff a temporary dress down code they are more likely to follow suit (excuse the pun!) if the boss does so themselves, this will set the standard for what is and isn’t appropriate office attire.
  • Be sensitive to those that find the heat more tiresome than others: we all have different levels of tolerance when it comes to heat. If there is a particular employee that is finding it very tough then listen to them and try to accommodate them during the heatwave either with some remote or more flexible working that will ensure they are a little more comfortable.

Above all, remember that as an employer you have a duty of care towards your employees, so ensure that you communicate your pastoral responsibilities appropriately.

Author: Annie Hayes