No March Madness Workplace Productivity Loss: Recession Is the Big Bracket Buster

Don't worry, boss, employees are too fearful to peek at games in this work environment.

A detail shot of a basketball during the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship Semifinals at the Ford Center March 13, 2009 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
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With the onset of March Madness just days away, the nation's employers typically would be bracing for a productivity drain as workers research teams, fill out office pool brackets, and watch live, streaming feeds of games online. However, companies may have little reason to worry this year.

In this economy, employees are disinclined to do anything that might put their jobs at higher risk than they already are. Meanwhile, employers have bigger issues to address than whether a few workers are using work time to fill out brackets or sneaking peeks at games online. Companies would be better served by allowing this minor distraction during these anxiety-producing times.

In the past, we have made lighthearted attempts to estimate the impact of March Madness on productivity. Using a variety of data points, including average income among college hoops fans, estimates of the number March Madness office pool participants, the average amount of time spent online viewing games, etc., we calculated the amount in lost wages companies paid to workers who were spending time on March Madness instead of their job responsibilities.

Applied to a large population of March Madness pool participants and over the entire length of the tournament, the amount in lost productivity tended to be a fairly impressive figure. Of course, there really is no way to calculate the lost productivity, especially in today's technology-driven, Internet-connected workplace. The same technology that allows you to watch live, streaming videos of basketball games at your desk also allows you to complete projects from home, on a commuter train, or even from the poolside cabana while you are on vacation.

There undoubtedly is an impact on workplace productivity during March Madness. People in offices all over the country will attest to the fact that coworkers have taken vacation days or called in sick in order to watch the first round games. Others will confess that more time was spent on office pool brackets than spreadsheets in the days leading up to the tournament. But, in the end, the work still gets done and businesses are no worse for wear.

In the current economy, companies have much bigger fish to fry. Employers across the country are reining in costs to offset a dramatic slowdown in consumer and business spending. Companies are not only cutting jobs, they are cutting salaries, benefits, work hours, contributions to 401(k) plans, etc.

In the current environment, any attempt to estimate the impact of March Madness on productivity would be counterproductive and inappropriate. The fact is that our whimsical examination of the intersection of sports and the workplace is often misinterpreted and taken too seriously in the best of times. Now that we are in the worst of times, there is no need to generate additional sources of anxiety and stress. We hope to continue this study of our national preoccupation with sports and how it may impact workplace productivity once the economy is on surer footing.

In light of the cost-cutting initiatives and the loss of perks, we hope that employers utilize March Madness this year to cut workers a little slack. A little distraction could be just what the doctor ordered. The key for companies is finding a way to maximize the positive aspects of March Madness to outweigh any perceived negatives.

Companies can use this event as a way to build morale and camaraderie. This could mean putting televisions in the break room, so employees have somewhere to watch the games other than the Internet. Employers might consider organizing a companywide pool, which should have no entry fee in order to avoid ethical and/or legal questions.

In the past, one company we contacted allowed workers to wear their favorite team's apparel. It charged a small entry fee, which was donated to a local charity. Another held a free office pool, and rewarded the top four a free lunch and the overall winner a gift certificate.

Companies might want to consider some of the following March Madness activities:

John A. Challenger is chief executive officer of global outplacement and business coaching consultancy at Challenger, Gray & Christmas.