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'Business casual' has new meaning for telecommuters

Tammy Swift, columnist

FARGO — A week or so ago, I was watching "Working Girl," the ultimate '80s workplace comedy starring Melanie Griffith as a working-class secretary who impersonates her yuppie boss to work her way up the corporate ladder.

As I watched all the powersuits, pearls and pumps charge down the sidewalks of Manhattan, I could only think of how formal the average American workplace used to be. I mean, women routinely wore prim, long-sleeved dresses and serious suits — complete with pantyhose, slips and enough hair gel to turn a Sasquatch into Brigitte Nielsen.

In fact, I remember my thrill at getting my very first "grown-up" job, as I daydreamed of sweeping into the workplace in my tailored Casual Corner suits with matching accessories. Move over, Delta Burke, you underdressed slob! These shoulder pads could shelter a family of four!

This was until I realized that a job as a cub reporter in western North Dakota was not so much Jessica Savitch as Baby Jessica, in that I would often return from a day's labor looking like I had been trapped in a well.

"Cute shoes" weren't conducive to tromping after athletic park rangers in the badlands.

And when I was writing a farm story, the only ones impressed by my new, cream-colored wool coat would be the pygmy goats who — in a bizarre act of cannibalism — would attempt to eat it.

At the time, I worked out of my Dickinson apartment, so my only co-workers consisted of my cat. Even so, I was surprisingly disciplined. I didn't write stories in my pajamas, but I got up and got ready every day as if I was heading to a real office.

Fast forward a few decades and things have changed drastically. Software and tech companies made it OK to wear T-shirts and jeans in the office. Dockers came along. They helped hatch the term "business casual," which — according to where you work — now can mean anything from a suit sans tie to a "work-appropriate" belly shirt.

Technology made it easier to telecommute, which changed the rules entirely. Now a worker really can accomplish almost anything from the comfort of their own home. Somewhere, a NASA engineer is launching satellites from his dining room table, in between feeding Cheerios to his 2-year-old and watching "The View."

The good news: Thanks to technology, we really can work in our pajamas.

The bad news: videoconferencing.

Videoconferencing software like Zoom, Drum and Zoho may sound like fabric softeners, but they actually offer the latest in web-conferencing capabilities.

In other words, you will still occasionally be seen by your co-workers, which means you will still need to make some modicum of effort at grooming. At least a few times a week, you will need to comb your hair and position yourself against the one cushion on the couch that isn't covered with cat hair.

I thought of this last week while preparing for a videoconference with several colleagues. As I ran product through my hair, applied eyeliner and donned a nice shirt over my pajama bottoms, I realized that my co-workers were probably all doing the same thing. From the waist up, we were "business casual." From the waist down, we were "hangover casual."

Welcome to the modern American work wardrobe.

It's not Pantsuit Nation.

It's Pants-free Nation.