Imagining the future using nostalgia by Dr Susanne Evans

What are you watching on television at the moment?  What music are you listening to?  If you are anything like me you might be listening to music from your past or re-watching favourite films or TV programmes.  You might be watching classic games of football or rugby.  There is a comfort in the familiar and the known, during this period of unknowing.  Right now it seems, nostalgia is everywhere.  

The safety blanket of the past

Partly, this is because, beyond the news, there are very few new programmes being made and shown.  But, this looking backwards also reflects a desire for safety and security.  Nostalgia is a common and universal reaction to psychological stress and is more common in periods of transition and change.  During these troubled times, looking back to better moments can be rewarding and create a sense of continuity and history, particularly when these nostalgic thoughts are shared.

Spending time in the past isn’t a bad thing (at least, not always)

Whilst this longing for a golden past is a normal emotion, in some circumstances spending too much time looking backwards can also create dissatisfaction and dislocation with the present.  This is certainly the case when people spend too much ruminating about past negative experiences.

And yet, much of the existing research shows that spending time wandering through our memories is usually a very positive experience.  We can all draw upon happy memories of the past to help us deal with difficult situations in the present, and there is nothing wrong with doing this.  Recently, I have been putting together photo albums of holidays taken over 15 years ago which has been a great experience and a reminder of happier times.  I have relished the memories of the sunshine and experiences with my family.  And it has made me look forward to a time when we might be able to do this again.

Nostalgia at work

Whilst much of the talk of nostalgia at the moment is focused on music, films and personal memories, nostalgia is present in organisations too.  Whilst much of the existing research into organisational nostalgia has focused on the idea of employees hanging on to the past during change programmes there is also evidence that nostalgia can be a positive force in organisations.

Studies have shown that having nostalgic thoughts about good experiences at work can increase motivation and can make it less likely that an employee will leave an organisation.  In my recent PhD research, I discovered that employees often told nostalgic stories about the organisation in which they worked; remembering past experiences at work with great fondness.  For many of the participants, it was these memories that kept them in the organisation.  This attachment to the past is extremely important to employees, particularly those who have worked in an organisation for some time.

This brings up some interesting thoughts about work now and in the future.  Are we feeling nostalgic for our former work life, whilst we work from home?  If we are, what are we nostalgic about?  Is it the actual work or is it, as I suspect, the social aspects of work?  The takeout barista coffee, the water cooler chat, the interesting discussions with our colleagues.  Likewise, when we do return to work (as it seems we will begin to do so over the coming months), will we be nostalgic for when we worked from home?  And what do all these questions mean for employers and leaders?

Imagining the future

There is an opportunity here to link our nostalgic thoughts of the past and our hopes and dreams for the future.  Research has shown that memory, imagination and future prediction are linked processes in the brain. Other research has indicated that thinking about the past as a group can have benefits such as bringing groups together and creating a sense of cohesion and kinship.  Therefore, undertaking work to discuss stories of the past as a group can be beneficial in both creating a sense of purpose and history and developing ideas for the future.

Appreciative inquiry suggests taking ‘the best of what is’ as a means of planning for future change.  Might looking backwards also help with this?  This would involve discussing what is valued and cherished from the past and then using this to build a platform for the future.  As we begin to come back together in our teams at work, I believe that this is a valuable exercise to undertake so that we can learn from our experiences at work and at home and emerge from lockdown stronger as individuals, teams and leaders.

As we face a new world of work post Covid, there are many plans to be made and discussions to be had.  My hope is that amongst all of this planning and activity, the opportunity to tell stories and learn lessons from the past is not lost or forgotten.  Let’s try and take the best of what is and what has been and use this to strengthen and improve the world of work in the future.

Let me know how you get on.

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Dr Susanne Evans began her change management career in Big 4 firms before setting her up own consultancy. Feldspar Consulting in 2007.  She focuses on the people side of change, enabling her clients to achieve sustainable change through the use of appreciative inquiry, conversation, dialogue and storytelling.  She works with individuals and companies across a variety of sectors and with organisations of all sizes.  Susanne is an experienced trainer and facilitator, with a Postgraduate Certificate in Facilitation from the University of Surrey and a PhD in Organisational Change and Storytelling from the University of Birmingham.  She also hosts the podcast ChangeStories (https://www.feldsparconsulting.com/change-stories/) where she shares insights about change through conversation.  Away from work, Susanne loves open water swimming and anything to do with archaeology.