Get a Grip: It’s Madness Worrying About Workers and March Madness

How do I know it’s March? People are talking about productivity lost because of the NCAA basketball tournament and gambling in the workplace. I can set my calendar by it.

Suddenly, everyone is a workplace productivity expert. The latest I saw from outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas put the number at $192 million for lost workplace productivity due to it. Others estimated somewhere in the $1-4 billion range.

John Challenger, CEO of the firm said, “Over the three weeks of the tournament, the nation’s 108 million workers will have logged more than 11 billion hours of work. The 8.4 million hours lost to March Madness is a relative drop in the bucket, accounting for less than one-tenth of one percent … of the total hours American workers will put in over the three weeks of the tournament.”

So why all the fuss over one-tenth of one percent?

Perception equals reality

Let’s face it: many managers still manage based on what you’re doing between 8 am and 5 pm. It keeps things simple for the manager and allows them to manage larger teams (at a greatly reduced cost to the employer I might add).

So when they see people checking their brackets or catching a few minutes of the game on their smart phone, the thought is “Hey, this is my time. I get to decide what they do.” They see the time wasted and imagine that they could be using it for other things. Business things. And unlike most sporting events, this one happens on two weekdays and arguably some of the most exciting action happens while someone is at work so the effect is more pronounced than other big sporting events.

Of course, dictating what people do at work is a manager’s right. If you want to micromanage every second of an employees day, you can. But we’re not talking about what a manager can do but what they should do. And what they should be doing is loosening up a bit.

What we know: The Numbers

If Challenger’s numbers are to be believed, the impact on the workforce is ridiculously small. With a workforce of 108 million Americans, $192 million in lost productivity means less than $2 of lost productivity per employee on average over the three week tournament. In the worst case scenario of $4 billion in lost productivity, it averages out to a little less than $40 of lost productivity over the same time period.

The first problem is that we really don’t know what impact the NCAA tournament has on our business. A range from less than $200 million to $4 billion isn’t helpful. And they are really just guesses too. The $200 million figure seems too low, but $4 billion seems too high. Where’s the actual number? Nobody knows.

But another factor is while that worst case scenario $4 billion number sounds high, that’s still not that much. Considering the nation will have about $250 billion in payroll during that time, that puts the decrease in productivity at about 1.6 percent.

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If that number isn’t staggeringly low enough, consider the fact that we haven’t had an annual drop in productivity in the workplace for almost 30 years. Even with all of these new distractions, our output per hour continues to rise year after year.

So a three week distraction that dings productivity at less than 2 percent? I just can’t get too worked up about it.

Gambling: let’s just scare everyone

I don’t ever pretend I’m a lawyer, so let’s get that out of the way. Most of the cases I’ve heard with NCAA pools gone awry have to do with some pretty serious missteps:

  • Taking a fee for organizing a pool;
  • Having mega-money involved;
  • Using intimidation to participate.

An acquaintance of mine who is a lawyer in a law office invited me to a NCAA pool and I asked him about it (mainly if he was trying to boost his business through getting me in trouble). He put it best to me when he called me to say, “No lawyer will tell you that driving 30 in a 25 is legal, but I drive 30 in a 25 zone as do most of my co-workers and we don’t sweat it.”

So do I worry about the gambling impact? No. And while I would implore you to make the right decision for your company, I think it is important to take a common sense approach to it. Don’t run company games, don’t take fees, don’t go over certain amounts, and don’t pressure people to participate.

How do you manage during March Madness?

I think there are a couple simple ways to manage during NCAA basketball tournament time. Set your expectations up front about what employees need to produce and then take your hands off. If they get their work done as usual, then no problem. And if they don’t, hold them accountable.

I work with CNBC on in the background most of the day, so I imagine I’ll do the same this week with the tournament. I still have to get the same amount of work done as always (probably more with our upcoming conference taking a bite out of my schedule) and if I don’t get it done, then I’ll be held accountable.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.