At a glance
In late February, America’s last word in style, Vogue magazine, insisted that, while face masks were not a fashion accessory, some looked decidedly more attractive than others.
Vogue’s 100-item list opens with a US$120 designer silk mask and includes everything from gingham, floral and minimalistic monochrome to upcycled, recycled and vintage-inspired “masklets”.
The Western world has certainly come a long way in it its attitude towards protective face coverings since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020. Outside a healthcare setting, the wearing of face masks is no longer seen as the oddity it once was, but as a necessity to prevent the spread of the virus and other germs, as well as stopping the inhalation of pollen and pollution.
The important lifesaving role of face masks aside, as Vogue rightly points out, “they do take up a fair amount of real estate on your face”.
With mask wearing required in various circumstances for the foreseeable future, and with their use now widely normalised, savvy companies have rushed to provide employees and customers with reusable masks that promote their brand, while also positioning the business as environmentally and socially responsible.
Pamela Jabbour is CEO of uniform specialists Total Image Group. She says the demand for customised face masks has skyrocketed in the past year.
“From top to toe represents who you work for and what that means, so if you’re an employee in a financial institution... and you come to work wearing a really bright floral mask, it’s not in keeping with the business.”
Supplying customised face masks to staff that are colour-coordinated with uniforms or that simply add a logo to a standard black mask has allowed companies to rein in personalisation and get control of the messaging for their brand, says Jabbour.
If there has been pushback from employees, she says, it hasn’t been about being denied individual expression, but about comfort.
“Unless it was mandatory, the majority of people didn’t want to wear a face mask all day, as it was uncomfortable. The feedback we had from business was to make the masks adjustable, in different sizes and as comfortable as possible – as well as what looked most approachable to customers,” says Jabbour.
Safety trumps self-expression
Beyond style and brand, an important consideration for businesses is that employees’ own masks may not be compliant with workplace health and safety regulations, says Aaron Goonrey, partner, workplace relations and safety, at Australian law firm Lander & Rogers.
Along with safety, “if employees choose to wear their own masks at work, they would be required to comply with the parameters of any other uniform policy or dress code that businesses may have in place,” he says.
“For example, if a workplace dress policy prevents employees from wearing clothing with offensive or inappropriate slogans, then this would extend to masks that contain any inappropriate designs or messages.”
A face mask designed to look like a wolf, for example, or with a slogan such as “Please wait, sarcastic comment loading” – two real-world examples – may be funny outside the office, but not everyone knows where to draw the line.
Personalisation of masks also raises more serious questions about the potential for discrimination. While human resources departments often talk about how employees should feel comfortable “bringing their whole selves to work”, an employee who chooses to wear a face mask that has political overtones or with a trade union logo may be viewed prejudicially by management.
Masks may also directly affect our ability to communicate with colleagues and clients.
“If an employer implements a policy that requires masks, they should also provide training on the use of masks, which may include training on proper communication and employee interactions while wearing masks,” says Goonrey.
Face masks hide the visual clues that enable us to read people’s emotions, reduce misunderstandings and help build trust and empathy. Several studies show that covering the lower half of our faces confuses our perception, making it difficult to distinguish disgust from anger or happiness from indifference.
To help connect and communicate, HR experts encourage mask wearers to be patient and to speak more slowly and clearly to compensate for muffled speech and the inability to lip read.