Our story yesterday on whether agents should continue to dress formally post-pandemic seemed to relight the fire on a long-time debate about how agents should dress in the modern world.
In that article, Kristjan Byfield from base property specialists and Marc von Grundherr from Benham and Reeves had quite opposing views about the importance of dress codes and formality in agency.
Meanwhile, a poll we ran at the bottom of the story showed a mixed view from the industry, with a third (33%) saying that formal wear is needed for credibility and respect among consumers, while 19% argued that it’s an archaic custom and agents should wear what makes them comfortable.
A quarter (25%) said consumers now expect professionals to dress more casually, while the final 23% said agents should be casual when not consumer-facing and formal when with customers.
To get a flavour of what the industry feels about this debate, which rears its head every few years and has become more heightened by the pandemic and changing working practices, EAT spoke to a number of agents and suppliers for their point of view.
Nicky Stevenson, managing director of Fine & Country UK and one of the most recognisable female voices in the industry, gave her opinion on whether female agents are under any pressure to dress a certain way or conform to a certain type of formal attire.
“It is such a personal choice. People need to be comfortable and confident and be able to express who they are,” she said. “I believe that people buy people and their personalities, however perception is reality, and when it comes to what you wear, I believe it is important to be dressed appropriately for the occasion and circumstance, whether that means wearing high heels for an office meeting or wellies for a viewing on a farm on a rainy day.”
Glynis Frew, CEO at Hunters – a company she’s been with since 1999 – and a familiar name to many in the industry, added: “When I see a debate on dress it always takes me back to my youth when, without question, I used to power dress. It makes me smile now, but I wore suits with shoulder pads and often bright coloured, too.
“The reason was twofold: first, because they made me feel good and if I felt good, I thought I performed better, which brings me to the second reason. I was a woman trying to make it in a man’s world and I wanted to be taken seriously. Therefore, it suited, if you will forgive the pun.”
She said agents should ‘dress for the occasion’. “In terms of business, including how we dress, I believe it is predominantly customer-led. For the most part, our customers are trusting us with their greatest asset, and they want to feel that there is trust and confidence. For us, we want to be seen as the consummate professional and a suit is a way of portraying that right at the start of the relationship. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
James Forrester, of agency Barrows and Forrester, is more scathing about the shift to casual.
“Following Covid-19, we are seeing a move towards casual dress within the workplace - this is simple laziness. Due to so many working from home in jogging bottoms and shorts over the past 18 months, we have simply become too lazy to think,” he said.
“Historically, following a downturn, we usually see the resurgence of Power Dressing - pin stripes suits, etc. We are a reflection of the business and so we have to wonder what the business message is - laziness or ready for business?”
He added: “When we sell, we should dress ‘up’ from the buyer; when we are buying, we can justify dressing ‘down’.
“Regardless of what is in the mainstream media, London now is full of office workers wearing suits - not people leaving home for an hour in the office in their gym shorts. Zoom calls are no different. By dressing for work, your brain is geared towards work.”
Lee James Pendleton, co-founder at independent estate agents James Pendleton, and a man who kicked off a debate a few years ago about what agents should wear when he banned agents from wearing ties and even hammered home this point by cutting staff members’ ties in two, hasn’t changed his opinion a few years down the line.
“We still see ourselves as trailblazing innovators. Having work attire is important but plenty of businesses still take things too far.
“If you want clients to know they’re dealing with an expert who can guide them through one of the most expensive transactions of their lives, our view is that you shouldn’t dress them all up like robots — AKA cheap suits and coffee-stained ties!
“As human beings, we naturally develop more confidence as we gain knowledge and experience in our field. That also asserts itself in how we dress, so it’s completely unnatural for experts in their field to look the same. That’s our philosophy.
“When we cut off our ties in 2019, it was a break with a tradition that we felt had had its day, just like Tie Rack. We wanted our team to exude confidence rather than conformity, and we felt a real atmospheric change in the branches at the time. It was a breath of fresh air.
“The tie ban is still alive and well at James Pendleton, and it’s going to stay that way. We’re not about to ban suits but there are other ways to dress, which are just as smart.
“A lot of our consultants have embraced the freedom we’ve given them. They’re happier, more comfortable and better able to express themselves.
“And on very hot days in the summer, we even encourage the wearing of smart shorts or linen… but it’s more Henley Royal Regatta than Glastonbury in the style stakes.”
Offering the supplier’s perspective, Neil Cobbold, chief sales officer at PropTech firm PayProp, said: “Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all make split-second decisions about the people we meet – and in a people-focused business such as property, those first impressions count for a lot. After all, we’re often helping our clients to buy, sell or rent out the most expensive asset they will ever own.”
“An agent who turns up to a client meeting in shorts and a t-shirt could be completely trustworthy and a real expert, but they will have an uphill battle to prove it,” he commented.
“And while some have predicted the death of formal business wear now that more of us are working from home, another trend suggests we may well see the property industry move in the other direction. Our sector is professionalising faster than ever. In the not-too-distant future, RoPA will introduce mandatory licensing and qualifications for estate and letting agents for the first time.”
“Taking our style cues from other similarly regulated professions could help to express our credibility and trustworthiness.
“At PayProp, we encourage everyone to ‘wear their common sense’. We don’t mandate any specific attire in our own offices. But a common-sense dress code means exactly that – dressing appropriately for the situation that we’re in – and when we’re meeting with clients, that means dressing professionally. That doesn’t necessarily need to mean a three-piece suit, a matching jacket or even a tie, but whatever clothing we choose has to create the right customer perception.”
Meanwhile, Craig Vile of The ValPal Network, which works closely with thousands of agents to help them grow their business through lead generation and other avenues, said: “The pandemic has brought in a new era of casual as everyone has got used to remote working and calls via Zoom and Teams, and there is definitely an argument that agents and property professionals should embrace the new normal and take a more relaxed approach to dress codes.
“The days of traditional formal wear at work have been on the way out for some time, and could be further supercharged by the pandemic.
“That said, there is also a strong argument that consumers will still take agents more seriously if they are suited and booted, or in more formal wear. And, given the difficulties agents already have in being seen as credible and respectable thanks to the negative perception in the press and popular culture, a smarter, more professional look might help with perception and might help agents appear more business-like.
“But do consumers care as much as we think they do about this sort of thing? That's still up for debate.
“In truth, a balanced, pragmatic approach is best - agents should be allowed to wear what makes them feel comfortable, as long as that doesn't mean turning up to work in pyjamas or a onesie!”