Over very many years, huge numbers of companies have expected their employees to wear a uniform or, at the very least, to dress smartly and in a similar fashion. Nowadays, on the other hand, businesses are increasingly allowing - even encouraging - staff to come to work in whatever they want. So do uniforms still have a place in the business world?
For a major retailer like Boots the Chemists the answer is unquestionably 'yes'. 'At Boots, uniforms are part of our total in-store environment, along with the fascia, logo and merchandising. They look smart and professional, and project a positive, brand image,' says Steve Houghton, a senior spokesman for the company. Uniforms also serve an identification purpose. 'Members of the public know who the staff are as they come through the door.' Just as important, they encourage employees to identify with the company and it's values. 'By providing uniforms, the company shows staff that it cares for them.' It's claimed, too, that uniforms can lift morale - if employees feel happy with what they are wearing, they will be happy at work. Certainly workers often take a very practical view of the matter. 'I know exactly what to put on in the morning,' says Sue, a checkout operator at a Safeway supermarket.
'I haven't got to find something to wear. And I don't have to spend my own money on working clothes either.'
Nevertheless, uniforms are not universally popular, especially among fashion-conscious staff who may resent having to wear standardised, and often fairly bland clothing. 'Ours is a nice, bright blue - and I don't have to wear it,' says a triumphant employee at the head office of a leading bank. 'Bloody uniforms,' comments one of her colleagues sourly.
Mandy Abdel-Aziz, human resources officer at the Ipswich Building Society, finds equally valid reasons why some businesses can be just as unenthusiastic about uniforms. 'We don't allow everyone to wear our uniforms because of the cost involved. It's not cheap at between £400 and £500 per person.' Also, clothing staff of different shapes and sizes is a complicated exercise. 'If you're responsible for handling and issuing staff uniforms,' says Abdel-Aziz, 'it's an administrative nightmare.'
And the smaller the firm, the worse the problems. 'When you're a small company, suppliers don't want to know,' claims Abdel-Aziz. 'Most won't supply less than 50 items at a time. Follow-up orders are very inconsistent, with long lead times. Once they've had the first big order, suppliers don't stand by their word.'
Many organisations think that uniforms are simply irrelevant these days.
James Duffel, speaking for the soon-to-be-public Norwich Union explains.
'We don't insist on a uniform because so little of our business is done face-to-face now.' Although business attire is generally encouraged, even this is no longer regarded as essential. 'Most of our staff work on shifts, sometimes until 10 or 11 o'clock at night, so a relaxed standard of dress is accepted from them.'
Angela Edward of the Institute of Personnel and Development sympathises with both viewpoints, but raises two key questions. 'What is cost-effective for the company? Will it suit employees as well? You don't want to have them restricted by uniforms, and their individuality stifled. And it's important to ensure that dress codes are suitable for ethnic groups. At the end of the day, it depends on what's practical - both for the organisation and its employees.'.