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Although it may seem inappropriate to talk to your colleagues about your university years or your awful former boss, nostalgia may actually be a vital tool for creating stronger, more connected teams.

TThe word ‘nostalgia’ likely conjures that warm, fuzzy feeling you get watching old home movies, listening to a 90s alt-rock playlist on Spotify or seeing butterfly clips and bell-bottom jeans reappear on store shelves. It’s defined as a wistful kind of longing for another time in your life.

And, although work may not be the first place you think about when you’re wistful, there’s plenty of nostalgia in the workplace, too. Think about that time you bonded with a colleague over a memory of a funny moment in a client presentation, or even a former boss’s outburst that left everyone stunned. Sure, the feeling you get reminiscing about past events in the workplace may not be the same kind of warm-fuzzy you get as remembering the first time you sat on an inflatable chair or listened to the Spice Girls. But the underlying emotions may be just as powerful.

According to Clay Routledge, a professor of management at North Dakota State University, US, research shows nostalgia can be a useful tool, a source of both comfort and inspiration, that can help people navigate tough career moments and motivate them to do their best work. Plus, even more importantly, nostalgia can go a long way toward bringing people together, creating the kinds of organisations with strong bonds that go on to be more successful.

Deepening bonds

Nostalgia sets us up to bond with friends and strangers in a powerful, unique way. Nostalgia and togetherness are intertwined in a number of ways, says Routledge. We’re more likely to feel nostalgic when we’re lonely and craving interaction.

Plus, most of the things we get nostalgic about are tied to family, friendships and other relationships. “Nostalgia is a very social emotional experience,” he explains. “The things that make us long for the past are experiences we think are personally meaningful, and that are shared with those we care about.”

Because of its connection to other people, nostalgia can prime us to deepen relationships or build new ones by putting us in the mood to connect with people. “It reminds us of our social nature,” Routledge says, “and puts the social side of us out front.”

While some nostalgic memories are personal and very specific, some are broader and likely to be shared with others, especially people who are close in age, or share some other demographic characteristic. “There’s a concept we call collective nostalgia, for an experience we share as a group,” says Routledge. “Some people are nostalgic about their university. Maybe they graduated 20 years ago. They have memories they shared with people at that time, and memories shared with people who attended that same school in another era. That nostalgia increases their in-group identity, and how much they feel invested in that group.”

Collective nostalgia can link people who don’t have familial or friendship bonds, through pop-culture or events in broader society that they have all experienced. In fact, nostalgia can be a unique tool for bringing diverse groups of people together – including in the workplace, where it’s potentially useful for fostering bonds between colleagues.

To start, nostalgia can help promote inclusivity in a work team as it encourages us to appreciate our relationships and reach out to create new ones, says Routledge. “It can help us empathise,” he says. “It has an expansive kind of effect, making people more open and tolerant. It’s like exposing a deeper part of our humanity we connect over.”

[Nostalgia] has an expansive kind of effect, making people more open and tolerant. It’s like exposing a deeper part of our humanity we connect over – Clay Routledge

Nostalgic moments in the workplace – whether work-related or not – result in groups of people who may be inherently inclined toward real connection, leading to more cohesive teams. That nostalgia may come from shared pop-culture references; noticing a Star Wars poster behind someone in a Zoom meeting, for instance, may lead to a bonding over Ewoks and AT-ATs. Work itself may also produce those nostalgic moments: a team might bond over a pizza-fuelled all-nighter. Later, sharing the memory of that night could inspire feelings of togetherness. 

Routledge adds that nostalgia isn’t always based on positive memories; reflecting on difficult moments can make it an even more useful tool. Workers may collectively remember bad bosses, a difficult merger or even a failed project. “People have nostalgic memories for times of great challenge and adversity. But there’s some sense of triumph over tragedy. Like, yeah, this was bad, but I grew as a person,” he says.

A surprising source of motivation

Nostalgia can also serve as a motivational force, according to research by Routledge and his team. In the workplace, nostalgia for earlier moments or high points in one’s career can be inspirational, as can thinking back to challenges that’ve been conquered, especially when those successes involved other team members. Maybe that all-nighter was incredibly stressful, but if things turned out well, that memory can help bring the group together, and encourage them the next time an all-nighter is called for.

“Feeling like you’ve overcome something is inspirational,” says Routledge. “It sends the message that there have been tough times before, and there are tough times ahead. But these memories are sources of confidence and hope. They leave us feeling alive and energised.”

Research has shown that nostalgia goes a long way toward increasing creativity, too. People who feel connected socially – an effect of nostalgia – are more likely to act confidently and take risks with their work, explains Routledge. Both individuals and teams may experience that increased creativity, especially if the team is connected by shared nostalgia. 

A dark side to reminiscing?

Of course, nostalgia can be misplaced, too – which may be especially true in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of negative views around nostalgia, especially in the business world,” says Routledge. “It comes from an understandable place, which is that business is about focusing on the future and taking on new challenges, so you can’t be stuck in the past. There’s a view that nostalgia is for old people, or those who’ve already peaked or are afraid of change. And those aren’t things we want in the modern, dynamic work world.”

Lakshmi Rengarajan, a New York-based workplace and employee-connection consultant, agrees that this concern isn’t unfounded, and that nostalgia can have a bit of a dark side.

“Nostalgia can be the source of revisionist history,” she says. “What nostalgia can do sometimes is gloss over what was problematic. Remembering how your growth was interconnected with other people is great, but it has to be taken with a dose of, ‘What did we not do right?’. I think nostalgia is this idea of things and moments we miss. I think we also have to be like, ‘OK, and what did we miss?’.”

Connected workplaces thrive

The fact that many of us are currently working at home will have drastically reduced our opportunities to connect with colleagues, let alone share a moment of nostalgia. Of course, some of us are bonding over nostalgia for the pre-pandemic office era, but generally speaking, our socialisation has diminished.

It’s a problem companies must solve, says Rengarajan. It may be tougher for people to connect when their colleagues are just faces on Zoom, but that connection is important enough that managers should be deliberate about finding ways to make it happen. That may mean both embracing nostalgia, adds Rengarajan, and creating conditions for its formation; in other words, producing an environment to breed future nostalgia.

“If you think about the moments you’ve felt nostalgia, it’s probably because you felt connected and seen,” she says. “So, how are we creating the conditions for nostalgia in a modern workplace? When people start to see where they work and their co-workers not as transactional, but as relational, those are the places where people develop feelings of nostalgia.”

There’s no right way to induce nostalgia at work, says Routledge. Studies, including his own, have asked people to recount nostalgic memories, listen to nostalgic music, look at old photos and perform other activities to put themselves in a nostalgic mindset.

Some of these tactics might be adaptable to a workplace, even one that’s largely moved online – like encouraging teams to contribute songs to shared playlists. Managers might carve out time at the start of a meeting for employees to tell a story or share a memory – work-related or otherwise – that sparks nostalgia.

“Nostalgia is as much about the future as it is the past,” he says. “We need inspiration and motivation. We reach to those meaningful memories, and it makes us want to connect and gives us the confidence to move forward.”

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