NCAA Tournament 2012 means distracted workers. What's an employer to do?

The first two days of NCAA Tournament 2012 mean productivity losses worth $175 million, by one estimate. Some employers grin and bear it, while others warn workers against watching on the sly.

Dave Martin/AP
Vanderbilt fans cheer during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the championship game of the 2012 Southeastern Conference tournament at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Sunday, March 11.

North Carolina State alum Jason Philbeck knows what he will be doing Friday afternoon: taking that time off from work to watch his team play San Diego State University as part of NCAA Tournament 2012.

“This is the first time in six years they are back in the tournament,” says Mr. Philbeck who plans to head for a sports bar with some friends. “You have to take the opportunity to cheer them on.”

Mr. Philbeck, who works for the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, is part of a big crowd.

As March Madness kicks off Tuesday with Western Kentucky playing Mississippi Valley State University, millions of fans will be trying to figure out ways they can watch their teams and still keep their employers happy. According some employment specialists, the next two or three weeks often rank low for productivity, as employees either keep one eye on the scoreboard or just try to cope with less sleep. Even leading up to the second round, which starts Thursday, many employees spend a lot of company time “researching” teams to compete in their office pools or in "bracketology" showdowns online.

“I can’t think of an external event that draws more people’s attention during the workday like the NCAA Tournament does in the US,” says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm. “The Super Bowl, the Olympics don’t compare to this.”

The ubiquitous YouTube.com even has a video on how to watch March Madness at work without getting caught. One tip: Schedule early-morning meetings to free up basketball time in the afternoon. “Just remember to keep a low profile,” it warns.

Online viewing of March Madness could add up to more than 2.5 million unique visitors a day, each spending an average of 90 minutes watching games, Mr. Challenger estimates, using last year's numbers as a guide. In 2011, 20 percent of all workers, or some 30 million Americans, participated in an office pool to pick the Final Four, according to Harris Interactive. Challenger, partly tongue-in-cheek, estimates that workers distracted by March Madness will cost employers about $175 million in work left undone, over just the first two days of the tournament.

One reason Challenger's calculation might be on the conservative side is the shift in technology. Five years ago, most office workers could watch games only on television or perhaps on their desktop computers. Today, workers can use their smart phones to monitor scores or even to watch live streaming video, if they subscribe to that. 

To try to rein in the office hoops mania, some companies are installing software that blocks sites such as ESPN.go.com or CBSsports.com. However, that is effective only for a company's own computer system, not for employee-owned smart phones.

Instead, some employers warn their workers against getting distracted by the tournament during the day. That’s the case at Re/Max in Plano, Texas, where Keith Dobbs, owner of the busy franchise, says employees can watch games on lunch break but not during work hours. “Not on my nickel,” says Mr. Dobbs, who has graduates of the University of Texas and Baylor (both in the tournament) working in his office. “That’s what they make DVRs for.”

Some productivity experts, however, question whether that’s the right approach. “You have to treat employees like adults,” says Andre Angel, chairman of WorkMeter Inc. in Dallas, which makes software to improve productivity. “If you oppress them, they will just look for another job.”

Mr. Angel takes the optimistic approach that employees will want to make up for work time spent on things other than work. “Honestly, they will come up to the challenge,” he says.

Some managers say the games actually help corporate departments to bond. “You talk to people you might not talk to,” says Jeff Lenard, who works for a large association in Washington and who went to grad school at Syracuse University. “You learn where people went to college, and you get to talk up your team.” 

The widespread involvement of Americans in office pools is one big reason March Madness is so pervasive, he says. “Last year, I went to the Old Dominion against Butler game,” Mr. Lenard recalls. “The game was won at the buzzer [by Butler], but everyone else was watching another game at the same time on some kind of hand-held device so they could see how their picks were doing.”

Some employees acknowledge being “creative” when it comes to viewing games during March Madness.

For example, Dallas lawyer Michael Kim is a big University of Texas fan. For those pesky games that take place during the day, the litigator prefers to take a late lunch so he can watch the second half of a game during his normal lunch time. “By then I know if it’s a close game,” he says.

And if the game stretches past lunch hour or goes into overtime? He has a plan.  

“I might forget where my keys are,” he jokes.

Kim sees one major downside to getting deeply involved in the games while at work. “If your team loses, then it creates a somber mood for the rest of the afternoon,” he says with a laugh. “That will kill your productivity.”

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