The Madness of Outdated Management

As John Challenger sees it, managers who worry too much about the March Madness college basketball tournament distracting employees are themselves distracted — from the best ways to lead people in today’s fluid workplaces.

Challenger is CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. He famously claimed a few years ago that U.S. businesses lose as much as $1.8 billion in productivity thanks to the NCAA basketball tournament. But that whopping figure — based on a rough calculation of time employees focus on the college games multiplied by average earnings — was always meant to be lighthearted, Challenger said.

Bigger problems than workers watching too much basketball, he said, are the failures by some organizations to focus on results rather than face time, and to pay enough attention to esprit de corps. In an age when employees often are expected to be available during evenings and weekends, companies must be willing to let life bleed into work some, Challenger suggested. And given the way relationships among employees have weakened over the years, organizations would do well to cultivate camaraderie to engage and retain their people, he said.

March Madness, in fact, can help firms win on both the work-life and team-building fronts, Challenger said. Talent Management spoke recently with him about how the attention-grabbing tournament just might be a manager’s best friend.

A few years ago, you said employers lost more than $1 billion in productivity because of March Madness. What’s the logic behind that?

Really, absolutely none. It was fundamentally meant to be tongue-in-cheek. But it brings up interesting issues regarding what our workplace is like today. We used to measure productivity in terms of hours worked. You’d go to your job and you’d clock in and you’d clock out. Unions would make rules. Here is your break time. Here is your work time. Very defined.

Today’s workplace really can’t be measured by time. It’s the wrong way to think about it. But we’re still caught up in that. Bosses, companies, workers — it’s our Puritan ethic. Our nose gets out of joint if we think we’re wasting time.

But it’s really not about that anymore. It’s about the amount of work and quality of the work you do.

Is distraction increasing or decreasing as a problem in the workplace?

It’s a lot different than it used to be. Maybe they’d allow me a radio and I could listen to that at my desk — and probably not, in most cases. Now we have the Internet at our desks. I can read about news events. I can read my Twitter or my Reddit, or I can shop on Amazon. I can play games, watch movies or go to my Facebook page. The distractions are out-of-control different from what they used to be. It’s just that we’re not in the same box anymore.

So it’s not a bigger problem, it’s a different problem? We’re bringing more of our life into our work?

And you’re bringing more of your work into your life. There’s no longer any discrete boundary between, “I’m either at work or I’m on my personal time.”

We’re at some pretty low engagement levels. Are disengaged employees at greater risk of being distracted at work?

It’s another version of this “Bowling Alone” culture that we’re in. People don’t do things together anywhere near how much they did in the 20th century. Everyone’s much more doing things on their own. Instead of playing cards together, we play by ourselves — solitaire or poker online on the computer.

The same thing happens in the workplace. People are less engaged because they know each other less. There are more temporary employees around that you don’t know. There are more part-timers. There are people with shorter tenures. You’re not the godparent of the kids of your co-worker anymore. You don’t go out to bars as much after work.

The less engaged someone is in their work, the more vulnerable to distractions they are.

What about higher levels of work expected of employees? Do you almost need opportunities to let off steam, perhaps by filling out your March Madness bracket or checking World Cup scores?

Absolutely. This is our world — a much more attention-deficit culture.

So I do think that smarter companies, more cognizant of the era, less focused on hourly work and thinking of work as based on time, are thinking about it in terms of productivity. And their best workers, they’re saying, “Fabulous, just judge me on my work output and the quality of work I do. And please don’t tell me what I can do and what I can’t do. Treat me like an adult. I’m going to get a lot of work done for you and it’s going to be great work. But if I want to go take a vacation for three days, and I can make sure that my work gets done, let me. Or if I want to take a long weekend to go skiing, don’t tell me I can’t take off Friday. Don’t tell me I can’t watch the NCAA game. That’s crazy. I’m going to get the work done.”

Then you get the people who don’t get much work done. They may work 12 hours a day, but they get half the work done as everybody else. Now all of a sudden they’re exposed.

Do you think it’s wise for companies to grab on to March Madness and organize office pools?

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Companies today are struggling to create bonds that tie people together. It’s not just that they’re temporary, they’re shorter-tenured, they’re part time. It’s also that they telecommute a lot more. They work at home a lot more. They work on the road a lot more. There’s less opportunity to bring people together to create relationships. Deeper relationships. And trust. That’s the secret to synergy, to creating a best company. You need to look for ways to do this.

March Madness is the quintessential sporting event of this era, at least in the workplace. There are [68] teams, so everyone in the workplace, no matter where they come from, can relate to it. If you bet on the pools, you all almost have an equal chance. You can talk about it. If you’re not a sports junkie, you can watch for two weeks and get your fix and know what’s going on.

You can tell a little about people’s identity based on who you support, like where you’re from.

It’s a sporting event that brings everyone in the country together.