The Fresh Start Effect – An Opportunity to Establish Fulfilling Connections at Work 

When Google moved into GooglePlex in 2003, it set what many people still think of as the gold standard in company culture. Twenty years later, organizations aspiring to replicate its success continue to provide employees with the obligatory beanbag chairs and fair-trade coffee. But creating a culture of connection is about more than perks. Plus, you may want to attract people looking for more than a free lunch. 

How Do We Recognize a Connected Culture? 

If we feel unsupported and excluded, we can experience feelings of disconnection, making us vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and depression. In contrast, feeling connected can lead us to experience positive emotions like belonging and joy. Such feelings arise when individuals share a common identity, understand each other, and practice empathy with one another. This is because, as social animals, we’re biologically wired to connect. As a result, we’re stronger and safer as part of a group where everyone looks out for each other. 

Why Is Connection Important at Work? 

When we feel connected and supported in this way, our bodies do not experience the fight-or-flight stress responses that detract from our wellbeing, creativity, and focus. Our bodies can concentrate on nourishing our brains and keeping our digestive, immune, and reproductive systems in good order. As a result, we think more clearly and creatively, recall memories more accurately, fall ill less often, and heal faster. When it comes to work, research shows that workforces that exhibit these characteristics are more productive than average.  

Today, digital technology has infiltrated our lives to such an extent that most of us are “connected” 24/7/365 through our laptops, smartphones, and wearable devices. While there’s no denying digital connection was a lifesaver during the pandemic, despite our high degree of digital contact, 58 percent of America’s adult population regularly feel lonely, according to the Cigna US Loneliness Index. Additionally, only slightly over half participate in meaningful face-to-face social interactions daily. Given that we spend most of our day working, companies can play a key role in addressing this loneliness epidemic—and benefit from the results. 

We Don’t Always Naturally Do What’s Best for Us 

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped us realize the importance of connection in our daily lives. Even small interactions with strangers—chatting to the cashier at our local grocery store or exchanging smiles with fellow dog-walkers—help us feel like part of our community. And yet, many people are struggling to engage even in these minor connections. When it comes to the workplace, whether virtual or in person, it can be overwhelming. 

While we may have looked forward to the “big return” to life as usual after the pandemic, the reality is that we’ve had a traumatic two-year period of abnormality. Unfortunately, our instincts don’t always lead us to take the right actions for our well-being. In fact, deeply internalized cultural norms, fears, and past experiences can often point us in the wrong direction. And as much as we crave connection, we may not naturally seek opportunities to connect. An example most of us can relate to would be staying in to watch Netflix after a stressful day’s work, when what would really make us feel better would be a workout at the gym or phoning a friend we haven’t spoken to in a while.  

Be Intentional about the “Fresh Start Effect” 

A 2014 study by Wharton professor and LDI Senior Fellow Katherine Milkman coined the term “the fresh start effect.” Milkman’s work found that “temporal landmarks” such as a new year, a birthday, or a new school semester can aid in the effectiveness of goal setting and achievement of behavioral change. The study attributes such events with causing individuals to evaluate their lives and “course correct,” thus influencing their behavior.  

In an episode of the podcast Dare to Lead, Brené Brown talks to Laurie Santos, professor of psychology and Head of Silliman Residential College at Yale University, on this phenomenon. They agree that the “big return” presents one of the most powerful shared “fresh start effects” of recent times and suggest leaders intentionally leverage it.  

Santos says the 24 months of the pandemic are sufficient to reset institutional memory and start afresh. The “big return” is an opportunity to overturn staid institutionalized practices and traditions. In the same way that individuals must question their intuitive reactions and mindfully examine and adapt their behavior, organizations must work consciously toward their “new happiness.” However, Santos cautions that while returning to work will be ultimately and overwhelmingly good for workers, leaders should practice and encourage self-compassion and grace throughout the process.