The author’s spring, summer, fall, and winter shorts collection
The author’s spring, summer, fall, and winter shorts collection
The author’s spring, summer, fall, and winter shorts collection (Photo: Alex Heard)

A Labor Day Cry for Freedom

If you want workers to come back to the office, here's a thought: let them wear shorts

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Malcolm Gladwell and Peggy Noonan are concerned that many of you want to keep working at home, now and in the future, whether there’s a pandemic going on or not. I agree that you should start thinking about a return to the office, but I suggest that, before giving in, you deliver a nonnegotiable dress-code ultimatum to your employer that goes like this: Let the people wear shorts. I’ll come back to this theme in a moment, but first let’s review the Gladwell-Noonan policy positions.

During a recent interview on the podcast The Diary of a CEO, Gladwell, author of seven bestselling books, including The Tipping Point and Blink, got genuinely emotional as he described what we’re losing culturally when people shun office life, such as a sense of camaraderie, belonging, and shared purpose. “It’s not in your best interest to work at home,” he said. “I know it’s a hassle to come to the office, but if you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live? Don’t you want to feel part of something?”

Before that, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed called “The Lonely Office Is Bad for America,” Noonan, a prominent pundit who was a speechwriter during the Reagan administration, lamented the “transformation of work” that has led to more people avoiding offices for good, a shift that, she wrote, had been going on for a while and was “simply sped up and finalized by the pandemic.” She finds the change depressing, for a combination of nostalgic reasons (she loved office culture as depicted, um, 50 years ago in The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and more serious worries about productivity and the U.S. national spirit.

“There is something demoralizing about all the empty offices, something post-greatness about them,” she wrote. “All the almost-empty buildings in all the downtowns—it feels too much like a metaphor for decline.”

As often happens when people with big media platforms weigh in on anything, Gladwell and Noonan got trashed. Gladwell trended on Twitter for most of the day on August 7, with mockers pointing out that he’s written in the past about his preference for working alone in coffee shops. Noonan got keel-hauled by the online magazine Wonkette in a story called “Peggy Noonan Wanders, Lonely, Through the End of Capitalism and Office Birthday Parties.”

The pile-on struck me as unfair. Gladwell, in fact, is part of an office culture: during the interview, he talks about employees who work for Pushkin Industries, an audio company he runs with his friend Jacob Weisberg. In addition to an office in Manhattan, Pushkin has an office and recording studio in Hudson, New York; Gladwell works with colleagues there in person. I have no idea where Noonan works, but I’m sure she knows enough about office life to have sincere thoughts about its decline. And they’re not the only people fretting about this.

That said, I’ll add that their generalizations may not apply to the lives of large numbers of people, including me. For starters, I happen to love offices and never really abandoned ship: I’ve been working in the spacious Santa Fe HQ of Outside since the spring of 2020, when I ignored a stay-at-home order issued by the governor of New Mexico and started sneaking back to the office instead. (Please don’t tell the governor I did this. She’s feisty.)

I don’t just mean I’ve worn shorts at work on Luau Fridays. I mean I’ve tried to wear them seven days a week, 52 weeks per year, including in the dead of winter. It’s been a glorious revelation.

People have returned to work at the Outside building (or not) in waves that ebb and flow in sync with their justifiable nervousness about the latest COVID-19 variant, and there have been times when it was pretty lonely in here. Before the pandemic, there were dozens of people scurrying around inside the two-story Santa Fe hub. During low tide in 2020, there were sometimes only four or five humans on the scene, plus the three turtles who swim in our courtyard fountain.

For me, that was fine. In addition to being able to concentrate fully because few others were around, I could shout in the hallways and check for echoes (there weren’t any; no flapping fruit bats, either), jog, jump rope, run an indoor mini-farm in my office using hydroponic gardening equipment, and, most precious of all, realize my lifelong dream of working in an office in shorts—without The Man getting on my case.

And I don’t just mean I’ve worn shorts on Luau Fridays. I mean I’ve tried to wear them seven days a week, 52 weeks per year, including in the dead of winter. (Sometimes when it snows a foot or more, I break down and wear what women on Twitter call “hard pants.”) This multiyear experiment in wardrobe liberty has been a glorious revelation—good for my health, mind, and soul—so I would say this (in a friendly way) to Gladwell and Noonan: You think we should all go back to the office? OK. As long as we can do it in shorts.

Or jorts. In any event: #FreeTheLegs.

The Heards at Mount Vernon
The Heards at Mount Vernon (Courtesy the Heard family)

I’ve always loved shorts, and I have the family photos to prove it. In Exhibit A (above), I’m with my parents, my sister, Julia, and one of my two brothers, Malcolm, in the mid-1960s during an epic family trip to Washington, D.C. Our vacation featured tourist excursions to Mount Vernon (pictured), the U.S. Capitol (where we met our congressman), a wax museum that depicted Captain John Smith being saved at the last moment by Pocahontas (whoa!), and the Mall, where we saw the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

The U.S. is a bitterly divided nation right now, but I think we can all agree that the Heard kids look sharp in our outfits. In my mom-picked combo of dark polo shirt and light blue shorts—which were made of nice, thick, stiff cotton—I was ready for anything: restaurants, the Capitol, running around screaming in the halls of the Shoreham Hotel, and outdoor fun, which that trip certainly featured. The highlight for me: free-soloing the Washington Monument.

I don’t remember the details of this episode all that well, since I was six, but according to my sister, when we went to see the mighty obelisk, I said I wanted to walk all the way to the top, using the then accessible interior staircase—896 steps, 550 feet straight up. My parents laughed and we moved on. Somehow I escaped them and ran back to the monument to claim my prize. I made it to the top—the challenge was immense!—and during my descent, I encountered my frantic mom and dad, who were looking sweaty and stressed as they trudged up the steps to find me. I can’t prove it, but I believe I still hold the record for Fastest Unsupported Onsight Washington Monument Shralp by a Half-Pint.

The Washington Monument on summit day in 1964
The Washington Monument on summit day in 1964 (Courtesy the Heard family)
The author, left, celebrating the Fourth of July with his brother and sister
The author, left, celebrating the Fourth of July with his brother and sister (Courtesy the Heard family)

Exhibit B will require more explaining. The squad is a few years older in the above image, and we’re doing a Fourth of July tableau vivant to honor the famous Archibald M. Willard painting, The Spirit of ’76. (Julia engineered this. She often dressed me up like a combination Ken Doll and stunt puppet.) As you can see, I look terrible, like a cricket player whose uniform got shrunk and bleached too hard by a vengeful laundress. But my blinding white togs are significant: this was my first official outfit when I played junior tennis, an experience that, more than any other, cemented my attachment to shorts.

It all started when my parents shocked us by joining a tennis club with a huge swimming pool—a kind gesture that we acknowledged by doing backflips for a week. On one blazing summer day, after swimming for about six hours, I wandered over to the tennis courts and sat on big concrete steps that rose above the club’s marquee venue, a front-and-center clay court that was the local equivalent to Centre Court Wimbledon.

Two preteen lads were playing a match, and though I knew very little about tennis yet, it dawned on me that this was the final of a real, live junior tournament. I sat there spellbound as a local hero named Earl Hassler—a small kid with beaver-pelt hair who was not much older than me—methodically destroyed a bigger, older guy, using beautiful ground strokes and robot-like consistency. Earl was the real deal. In 1970, he and a partner won a USTA 14-and-under national doubles championship.

After the master collected his trophy and trotted off, I had two thoughts: Winning tennis tournaments while everybody claps looks like fun, I should try it. (Ha! Never quite reached that level.) And Earl looks cool in those shorts.

I walked to the pro shop to check out some clothing and got my first close look at the high-end tennis garb of that era, the kind of thing worn by greats like Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith. I touched the light fabric on a pair of men’s shorts and admired their zippers, pockets, and eggshell hue. I wanted them!

My parents supported me taking up tennis—they bought me a racket and sprang for a couple of lessons—but my mom knew to block my weirder clothing aspirations. (I once dragged her to half a dozen stores in a futile search for Beatle boots.) She bought me the pedal pushers seen above—a more durable and affordable option than the pro-shop finery. They proved to be a smart choice, especially since you always take a few spills when you’re sliding around on clay courts, which are covered in fine, slippery granules. It was like learning to play the game on roller skates.

Many great moments in shorts followed, along with a few bad choices. (Have I mentioned my early teenage years, when I wore cut-offs and a T-shirt with a Bud Man cartoon on the front? No? Well, forget I said anything.) As I moved unsteadily into adulthood—a process that accelerated in my first post-college city, good old Washington, D.C.—I understood that there was a line of police tape stretched between wearing shorts at, say, the beach and trying to do it at work.

And yet I always yearned for the feeling of my getaway sticks being caressed by a soothing breeze, and years later, when I started working at Outside, I was sad to learn that our corporate parent was just as starchy about acceptable office wear as any other overlords. “While Mariah Media is not trying to be the fashion police and although we allow for comfortable attire,” said a memo that laid out what sounded like Hammurabi’s Dress Code, “we still need our employees to project a professional image.”

That meant no shorts for men or women. No sandals. No T-shirts (unless they were lettered with something useful like “Outside Magazine,” “Harvard,” or “Welcome to Margaritaville”). Jeans were allowed, as long as they weren’t “torn or frayed.”

Wow. All these rules at a publication that once celebrated the rebellious spirit of George Hayduke.

The author’s favorite pair of shorts: American Eagle Next Level Flex Floral (Photo: Alex Heard)

Mariah’s founder, Lawrence J. Burke, still owned Outside when the pandemic started—he sold the business in February 2021—and I think that, driven by the same concerns as Gladwell and Noonan, it pained him to see the building emptied when we were all sent home. I also think he was wrong to worry about our daily attire, which he continued to do: at one point early on, he sent an email around saying that all people working at home should “act as if you are getting up to go to work, even if work is in the next room.” I stared hard at those words. They sounded anti-shorts.

As Outside’s longtime editorial director, I had a clear sense of how our productivity was going, no matter what employees chose to wear, whether it was pants, pajamas, or Halloween costumes. From what I could see, our staff worked more diligently than ever. Faced with the same sorts of crippling and shifting challenges that workers all over the country endured, the people here kept our print publications and website going strong, and it wasn’t easy. Sometimes I would think about all this while sitting at my desk in the office, and I’d get a little choked up.

Needless to say, during these misty moments I was always wearing shorts.

I still remember the rush of that liberating time. When I initially started creeping back to the office in March of 2020, I gazed at the ghostly hallways and was seized by a thought that stunned me with its power: I can wear shorts in here now—like a free man. And I was still able to wear them after the magazine was sold; the code these days is a mellow “dress appropriately.” (Good advice, because as history has taught us, men wearing shorts can be not so great when it’s done wrong. See this photo of Senator Richard Burr, who looks like he interrupted his vacation on Gilligan’s Island to cast a vote in the Capitol.)

In my case—and I’ll bet this is true for lots of people—shifting over to a more casual wardrobe did not translate into slacking. If anything, I worked harder during the pandemic than I ever had before, partly because: What else was there to do?

At Outside, I was in a position to have a clear sense of how our productivity was going, no matter what employees chose to wear—whether it was pants, pajamas, or Halloween costumes.

Two basic patterns shaped my existence during the long societal ordeal. First, my daily life was reduced to a cycle of simple functions: sleep, work, do chores and exercise, buy food, make food, eat, read or watch TV, have a nightcap, repeat. (I haven’t traveled anywhere overnight since 2019.) Second, when everybody at Outside was sent home, we were well trained and well equipped to function remotely, with help from systems that, prior to the pandemic, you had to be in the office to use. (Thanks, network administrators!) Since I use a laptop, that meant I could do every aspect of my job from anywhere.

And that’s the way it’s been. I’ve written and edited and joined meetings and dealt with busywork or ignored emails at the office, my house, my in-laws’ house, Starbucks, the Santa Fe Public Library, a hospital waiting room, the lobby of an art museum in Albuquerque, and a bunch of other places. I’ve taken part in Google Meet calls while sitting on the bed, wet haired, with my cat. I did substantive editing on a 9,000-word feature story between bouts of chopping vegetables for dinner. I worked on this article in four different locations, including a comfy armchair in a guest bedroom, with The Great British Baking Show playing in the background.

My point is that people at Outside—and elsewhere—have managed to stay productive because they’re professionals, and because technology has given them workplace flexibility that wasn’t possible in the past. (It doesn’t matter what they’re wearing.) And though our office culture has suffered, it hasn’t been destroyed. Commenters on social media often gripe about Zoom calls, Google Meet, and Slack, but for me, especially during those early, very isolated months, they were a lifesaver in terms of allowing me to maintain a meaningful connection with my colleagues.

ebay pineapple shorts listing screenshot

I probably don’t need to mention that, in every work example cited above, I was wearing shorts. I had several pairs in the lineup—and they were laundered constantly, trust me!—but my go-to favorite was a short (seen above) called American Eagle Next Level Flex Floral Pattern, which I picked up on sale at a pretty hardcore adventure outfitter: Ross Dress for Less.

Everything about this garment was right. Feel, fit, durability, and the subtle island spirit of its print. I wore them at work and during many non-office activities, such as gardening, roof-leak patching, hiking, cooking, napping with my cat, and grocery shopping. In the language of the Mariah Media dress code, did I “project a professional image” while wearing them? I think so. One afternoon at Whole Foods, an enthusiastic man came up to me and said that my clothing combo that day—the floral shorts and a plaid shirt—“works wonderfully! Against all odds.” Who was I to argue?

Unfortunately, my Flex Florals are worn out and will soon have to be buried (with honors) in a landfill. Fortunately, my wife just scored four new pairs on eBay, along with a tasteful pineapple print that looks very promising.

The pandemic is still on, so the present remains uncertain. But the future, whether it happens in the office or at home, now seems a little brighter.