The hidden benefits of Uniform Culture

This article originally appeared on the WP Engine Blog.


I don’t mean “uniform” as in “identical.” (Although, that’s not a bad definition of culture: The attributes that we all share.)

I mean “uniform” as in, “Wearing the same clothes, thereby reducing individuality.”

We have a swag culture at WP Engine, particularly in T-shirts. Because we have a phenomenal Artistic Director (Seth), folks actually want to wear our shirts:

Requiring school uniforms has been a subject of debate in America for decades; today 20% of public schools require uniforms. Many Americans find this repugnant because it mutes personal expression, reinforcing the notion that people are fungible factory workers instead of creative individuals, and implies your personal choices are unimportant or unvalued. Banksy says, “The creative adult is the child who survived.” Uniforms are yet another way in which we kill creative children.

Surveys of students in those schools, however, reveal that more than half are thankful to have the uniforms, for a variety of reasons, and say it doesn’t unduly hamper their personal expression.

Indeed there are benefits from wearing uniforms that Americans ought to prize. For example, uniforms attack the concept of “class” — you cannot tell from visual inspection how much money you have, what family you came from, or where you were born. You have to judge the person, not their appearance.

Applied to a corporate context, those same benefits accrue, and more: You can’t immediately know someone’s title, status, intelligence, or seniority.

I see those benefits manifest every day at WP Engine. Most of us wear swag more often than not. It would be bad if that were required — then we’re truly killing individuality — but because folks choose to do so, the immediate benefit is that it promotes the fact that everyone is part of the same team, regardless of title or department or age.

It shows in the little things. A few Mondays ago, a group of ten new hires were filtering into the office, dazed and clambering about their new environment, preparing for their first few days of orientation. As I walked into the office, I held the door open for a few of them, and a guy who has been with the company for three years. As the newbies nervously rushed without acknowledgement, the oldie smiled at me and said, “Those folks don’t even realize that The Founder Of The Company just held the door open for them.”

Exactly, and that’s good. Should we treat each other better or worse because of a title? Should we always feel comfortable arguing for our opinion or feel like that’s not acceptable because of a traditional equating of seniority and wisdom?

As for the argument that maybe uniforms encourage conformity, one look at our company shows exactly the opposite. Because we know what dimensions we are identical on (i.e. our culture), we don’t select for things like gender or sexual orientation or religion, and that’s clearly manifested in our roster. I’m not sure how many other companies have women for 2/3rds of C-level executives, 50% of VPs and nearly 50% of Directors, and I could go down the line on other dimensions as well.

Perhaps by unifying us on what really matters, instead of superficialities, we’re even more likely to allow the other variables of humanity to range wide and free, and yet end up with a stronger, more unified team of diverse individuals.

It just goes to show that Seth’s amazing designs aren’t mere fancy decoration for a brand. Because the shirts are compelling, we wear them constantly, and because wear them constantly, our culture is strengthened without muting our individually.

Pretty powerful stuff for a cotton tee!

1,981 responses to “The hidden benefits of Uniform Culture”

  1. “Applied to a corporate context, those same benefits accrue, and more: You can’t immediately know someone’s title, status, intelligence, or seniority.”

    If your employees at your company think they can tell these things about how people dress you have bigger problems than uniforms. Don’t judge people based on their appearance because it is mean or unkind. But maybe more importantly, you shouldn’t do it because it often just makes your simply wrong.

    This article reinforces the terrible view that if a developer who makes well into six figures wears a mustard stained shirt with sweat pants that you actually have some insights into what “class” they belong in by what he/she is wearing. That’s foolish.

    Sorry, I usually love these posts, but this article only reinforces the idea that your superficial judgements can be correct based on clothing. Ridiculous.

  2. OH goodness!!! As the person that named WordPress (yes, really) — how much schmoozing would I have to do to get one of those “Don’t Mess with WordPress” t-shirts??? I’m in love with the United We Press one too. Oh goodness. Is there any way to buy them? To get one? I must have…

  3. @asmartbear:disqus how many people are you up to at WP Engine now? Have you guys had culture hiccups along the road? What happens when you have someone that likes to dress sharply start at the company? Do they usually feel compelled to conform to the dress, or do you all try to get some swag that suits their style a bit?

    These may seem like nitpicky questions, but I am deadly serious about them. Cheers!

    • No worries, it’s not nitpicky!

      We’re around 210 employees. We’ve been extremely intentional and careful and energetic around our dedication to culture, and as a result we haven’t had hiccups there; in fact it’s stronger now than ever. We’ve had hiccups at literally all other dimensions of the business — as you’d expect with high growth — but we really can pat ourselves on the back on managing culture.

      Certainly no one feels compelled to wear anything in particular. Some people come to work every day in shorts and no shoes, some come in full suits, some only in swag, many just vary. It’s why the prevalence of swag-wearers on any given day is so fun — it’s because folks want to. Some because of company pride, and some because we really do have good designs. :-)

      I don’t think we consider personal style when we design swag. We do spend a lot of time on what the swag is FOR. For example, for Veteran’s Day, and for our special Veterans recruiting projects, we have that “United we Press” shirt you see in the picture. Or for WordCamp Orlando we had stickers in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. So we want it to be contextual and relevant.

      • Interesting. That definitely gives your earlier comments lots more context, as I didn’t realize it was specific to events. That definitely makes the attire thing much more clear and meaningful.

        Can you talk or write some more posts about the types of things you have been intentional about related to culture? Having been around here for a while, I know that you didn’t end up being happy at your last company, so I imagine that you have some really specific focus areas and could write some meaningful breakdowns of how you consider and address the issues in each of those focus areas.

        Thanks again. Cheers!

  4. I always had a hard time with school uniforms. They have this “uniformity” “all the same” image that doesn’t sit well with creativity and the celebration of diversity. However, I do believe they can help reduce discrimination, especially with teenager. I know it was all about wearing the latest hit brand when I was in middle school. It was almost the only way to fit in (or so I thought at the time). Uniforms would have solved that problem.

    When it comes to work environment, I like the idea that your employees are willingly wearing the swag. It creates a feeling of belonging. It’s so rare to find companies working as big teams with little to no hierarchy (I work for one now as it’s still a small startup but I never experienced that in larger companies). I think it’s important to create this team work, we’re in this together environment. I know that it’s personality the best way to motivate me.

  5. Really digging that “Don’t mess” design! Is there any way I could buy that shirt?!

    • Hi Mike! Email me shirt size and address + phone number for shipping and I can see what I can do! shayda(@)

  6. Thanks for the FANTASTIC post! This information is really
    good and thanks a ton for sharing it :-) I m looking forward desperately for
    the next post of yours..

  7. There are several benefits of Corporate wear uniform like employees feel a sense of unity and also positive impact on people’s behaviour – when they are wearing a uniform they know that their behaviour may reflect well or poorly on their employer and are therefore more conscious of their actions.

  8. Corporate uniforms have certain benefits. When it comes to customer service and outside interaction the benefits are obvious. But when it comes to the more subtle effect of creating corporate culture, there are other benefits. Some might call them drawbacks, too. It all depends on what you’re going for.

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