September 30, 2011 10:04 pm

Can one wear boots in the office?

Given the time of year, it’s little surprise that letters and emails from the Fast Lane mailbag concerned sartorial issues

After a couple of weeks of neglect, I decided to tip over the Fast Lane mailbag on Tuesday evening and sifted through dispatches posted from the FT’s main markets and many more where we don’t even have printing presses.

Given the time of year, it’s little surprise that many letters and emails concerned sartorial issues about returning to the office and sorting out a fresh wardrobe. As ever, there were plenty of “where should I go for my honeymoon/40th birthday/anniversary?” queries. The most surprising new category focused on issues of re-thinking workspaces. These suggest that bosses are either considering downsizing in anticipation of another downturn or simply looking for more dynamic environments to boost morale and retain staff. Here are some of the best in the bag.

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Tyler Brûlé

Q: I’ve recently bought a small company in the US and I’m not used to the American cubicle work culture. I prefer completely open-plan offices, so is there a diplomatic way to break down walls?

A: This is a tricky one. The US seems to be the last corner of the world that’s holding on to those dreadful half-wall cubicles – there’s no doubt some union lobbying to keep them in place. I’d go on a bit of a PR offensive. First, you could scatter your public spaces with design magazines from Switzerland and the Nordic world that feature wonderful, airy, open-plan spaces full of happy, motivated, attractive workers. Then you could set out your vision for the company, tell your new colleagues that you want to “put design first” and talk them through your vision for a modern workspace. If this finds support, I’d then take top management on a small tour of other companies with open-plan environments and hope the message trickles down. If there is still resistance after all this, do it anyway. You bought the company and your staff should be thrilled that you’re investing rather than cutting.

Q: We’re having a big discussion in our company about changing all our lighting to cooler, low-energy bulbs and LED lighting. I’ve been told that LED lights are much warmer these days but I’m not convinced.

A: Your hunch is correct. LED is still shocking and you’ll have an office full of ghouls if you go ahead with it. I don’t think office lighting is anywhere near where it should be and I’d hold out until things improve over the coming years. I would leave the ceiling grid turned off and just go with desk lamps if you can make it work from a budget point of view. It also creates a cosier environment after-hours, and I’m convinced that it encourages people to work longer.

Q: Why are delivery times so frustratingly long for office furniture? I want to order 20 desks from a well-respected Italian brand but they’re still quoting four months. Italy’s not that far from Hamburg. Any thoughts on what I should do?

A: There’s a good chance that only part of the final assembly is done in Italy and that all the metal-work is being done in Turkey or further east. Much of the delay is down to simple logistics. We recently used a very good Swiss company that do a good line of school furniture, and they were able to deliver in less than a month. In their case they’re still a family business and own all of their manufacturing.

Q: Is it really necessary to have both winter suits and summer suits? Can I not get away with something that works across climates?

A: I’d like to say yes but you never know when you’re going to have to jump on a flight to Singapore and then, no matter how year-round your suit is, you’re going to wind up with unsightly wet patches. If you live mostly in northern Germany, Britain or Benelux and never venture to the tropics (or even the Med), you’re fine with light wool but I reckon you need some summer-weights as well.

Q: I’ve noticed the trend for turning up one’s trousers and jeans. How many turns is acceptable? Can I do it for weekend and work?

A: If you have to ask these questions it’s perhaps best if you avoid trying to join the funky bunch and leave your hems alone. I’ve only seen Japanese businessmen carry off turn-ups with any success and advising on denim opens up a whole series of issues before we get down to asking much ankle you should show.

Q: Can one wear boots in the office?

A: If you’re a woman with lovely pins, I’m all for them. If you’re a man, it depends on the workplace. If you work for a Finnish timber company, boots might be necessary. If you work for a law firm in Manhattan, I don’t think LL Bean or Quoddy hunting boots are appropriate for the office.

Q: A young man in my office has started wearing a rather large hoop in one ear. We have nothing in our HR manual about jewellery for men – can I say something?

A: From your return address I see you don’t work for Cartier, so I’d get busy and start adding to your work attire and appearance guidelines.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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