Why the racket over NCAA brackets?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 11:24pm
Careful getting to caught up with hoops hysteria in the workplace.

Why tell employees that if they spend 20 minutes working on their NCAA Basketball Tournament brackets they are costing U.S. businesses nearly $2 billion in lost productivity? Why scare them with stories about workers streaming “live” video of their favorite teams so much that they crash computer servers?

It’s not like they’ll give a crap — especially if they have a lot of their own money at risk, or if they’re banking on Kansas to win it all.

Much has been written about the surveys, studies and estimates on the financial impact of millions of Americans using work hours to fill out tournament brackets, follow the games, and agonize over the success or failure of their picks.

The 2010 edition of this annual ritual — running from Thursday through April 4 — carries with it various estimates, including that more than 58 million will fill out March Madness brackets [Microsoft]; nearly 92 percent of those who watch games online do so at work [Nielsen Media Research]; and businesses stand to lose $1.8 billion in lost productivity during the first week of the tourney [Challenger Gray & Christmas outplacement firm], up from a $1.7 billion estimate last year.

So should your boss come down hard on you and your co-workers if you’re caught filling out brackets or watching games during work hours? Not according to some business experts who have found that the majority of employers now view betting pools as morale boosters.

“In the end, employers may or may not see a significant impact,” says the report by the Challenger firm. “Even if they do, few are compelled to go out of their way to ban March Madness-related activities. Especially in this economy, when many employees are already anxious about their jobs, there is no reason for employers to make a big deal about what amounts to a blip on the productivity radar.

“In fact, with worker stress and anxiety heightened, a little distraction could be just what the doctor ordered.”

Damn skippy! It’s no secret to any boss worth their salt that their employees have a tendency to waste time most days, most months. March Madness simply has become the poster child for workplace distractions. If people weren’t going mad with brackets this week, what’s to say they wouldn’t be playing online Sudoku, or checking out their Facebook home page, or streaming ‘80s hair-band tunes on Pandora?

Lazy workers don’t need hoops hysteria as an excuse to be unproductive. The hard workers, the ones who have endured pay cuts, shrinking staffs, rising health care premiums and heftier workloads — not to mention the inability of their favorite team to beat a ranked opponent — definitely can use the distraction this week.

Whooping on hoops

Since there seem to be more surveys than Kentucky fans, another one by staffing firm OfficeTeam recently found that in a survey of 1,000 office managers, 41 percent believed the tournament has a positive effect on employee morale, 56 percent said it did not have a negative effect on productivity, and 22 percent said workers' productivity increased.

"The workplace has changed, and with downsizing and employees coming and going more frequently, there are fewer opportunities for bonding," says John Challenger of Challenger Gray & Christmas. "Getting workers engaged is worth all the money lost during March Madness."

Before you all holler and hop up and down like a Duke fan, there is validity to two areas of study that should be considered — and controlled — by hoops fanatics working this week: the overloading of computer systems, and… um, uh… (what was I writing about?) … oh, yeah, loss of concentration. "It's certainly going to impact ability to concentrate," Challenger says. But an argument can be made that the critical thought that drives successfully picking every 7-seed vs. 10-seed contest only serves to lubricate the type of thinking that’s encouraged on the job.

While admitting his firm’s study “is not the most scientific,” Challenger believes the larger productivity issue is with streaming video that has the potential to overload companies' bandwidth. According to statistics from CBSSports.com, nearly 1.4 million unique users visited the site in 2007 and watched, on average, 1.9 hours of live video. Those numbers likely jumped last year and may again this year, so a leap in traffic like that could conceivably crash an office server. "When servers go down, most people want to head home because they are so computer-dependent," the study says. "It essentially halts productivity."

It also could halt your employment if you are the one blamed for crashing the server.

You have a choice

So, as the games move on through to the April 4 championship game, are employers really cringing in anticipation of lost productivity as workers obsess over which teams will advance, in effect paralyzing their ability to work? It’s not the fault of the worker that tournament teams are chosen late on a Sunday or that 16 games are played on both Thursday and Friday. Since some brackets have to be completed before the “play-in game,” that doesn’t leave much time to study the matchups, let alone make your picks. And where are you Monday through Friday? At work, where else?

And employees didn’t create the technology that drives the televised or streamed distractions into the workplace. [Well, actually a few had to at some point, I guess.] Still, the NCAA Tournament beast, while not of our own design, is damn difficult to tame.

So basically, you have two choices. You can find out your boss’ favorite team, encourage him or her to take part in a bracket pool and let them lead. Take your cues from them, and don’t get caught shouting at the TV or dispensing updated scores throughout the office. Then cross your fingers and hope for the best — just like Vandy fans are doing.

Or you can call in sick.


1 Comment on this post:

By: richgoose on 3/18/10 at 6:56

Every year more people have an opportunity to watch March Madness without being disrupted a supervisor or boss. Food Stamps,Unemployment checks and what looks like free health care make this the greatest country on earth for leisure.