Firms Grapple With March Madness

Every year during the third week of March, work productivity comes to a screeching halt as offices across the country divert their focus toward the NCAA basketball tournament.

After the field of 68 teams is set on the day known as Selection Sunday, those who are enthralled with the tournament spend countless work hours researching teams and matchups so their brackets can be completed by tip-off of the first round of games on Thursday. Then, once the tournament games kick off, workers find distraction in watching the madness unfold during prime working hours.

Of course, productivity takes a hit. According to a study by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., March Madness could cost U.S. employers as much as $1.2 billion in lost productivity during the first week of the tournament.

Susan Heathfield, About.com’s human resources expert, has seen the influence of March Madness on the workplace. While it may have once been easier to just skip work entirely during the first days of the tournament, Heathfield said employees are adopting new habits that are even more damaging to workplace productivity.

“There’s an increase in the average workplace on the stress on the inbound Internet lines because so many people are either streaming the games or filling out and researching their brackets in the days leading up to the tournament,” Heathfield said. “It’s really kind of amazing.”

Companies are still unsure of how to handle the issue. While some institute very strict policies of what their employees do on company time, others have embraced a much more relaxed approach.

“Companies are divided about how to deal with things such as March Madness,” Heathfield said. “Every year employers monitor what their employees are doing on their computers at work, but that sends a terrible message of distrust to that employee. It also fails to recognize that this whole generation of employees entering the workplace is just as likely to be doing their work at 11 at night even if they are watching a game during the day.”

March Madness isn’t the only time employees might become distracted by sporting events. The recent Winter Olympics provided a similar distraction for workers, as events happening live in Russia fell in the middle of working hours for those in the U.S.

Heathfield said at her company, TechSmith Corp., an employee sent out an email to the whole staff saying that he had reserved a main conference room to stream the U.S. vs. Canada Olympic semifinal hockey game in February. The company even provided drinks.

So if sporting events such as the NCAA tournament are already a black hole for workplace efficiency, why don’t more employers embrace it and use the first days of March Madness as a way to get employees to bond?

“A lot of employers don’t think in terms of team building yet,” Heathfield said. “It’s silly. Why let employees sit in their isolated little cubicles streaming the game on their own computers, [which] destroys the possibility of productivity for everyone who is on the Internet that day?”

In Heathfield’s mind, if done right, work doesn’t have to stop once basketball starts.

“Put everyone all in a central room, buy them some treats, [and] they will talk to each other while they still sit on their mobile devices doing their email or whatever they need to get done,” she said. “It’s not like they will all stop working.”

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.