Managing March Madness: How Will You and Your Workforce Play It?

Editor’s noteLaura Kerekes is the Chief Knowledge Officer for ThinkHR. She will be contributing regularly to TLNT.

Does March Madness infect your organization and cause productivity to drop or does it actually increase productivity due to higher morale?

There are differences in opinion related to this annual phenomenon and how employers should manage the distractions that come with it.

It creates office distractions

Unlike other sporting events, March Madness is a prolonged event starting with the first games on March 19  and ending with the national championship game on April 9. In between those dates, 68 teams will start the “Big Dance,” playing elimination games in their regional brackets, from the first four, to the rounds of 64 and 32, to the “Sweet 16” and then, the “Final Four” in Atlanta for the national championship on April 9.

Some of those initial games play throughout the work day, making it an alluring distraction for those officially on the clock at work. Employees can follow their teams from their work computers and/or smart devices all day long. Depending upon the office technology, if enough employees are streaming the games from their work computers, it can also have the effect of slowing the network, causing headaches for company IT professionals.

It is not just following the games that causes work distractions – it’s the activity surrounding completing and following the brackets in the ever-present office pool. If gambling is involved with March Madness, employers might be subjecting themselves to legal liability, according to law firm Fisher & Phillips.

Does productivity get reduced?

“Betting pools can involve risk of violating various laws,” said Michael Abcarian, managing partner of the labor and employment firm’s Dallas office. “Some employers are willing to take the risk; however, they should ensure that managers and supervisors are not coordinating office betting pools, soliciting employee participation in them, or otherwise creating the appearance of employer sponsorship.”

So let’s face it: productivity is reduced somewhat during March Madness. But also consider that office morale and camaraderie can also be impacted favorably by this event, too.

So what should an employer do? Embrace March Madness, ignore it, or manage it?

The ball is truly in your court to determine how March Madness fits with your business culture and customer deliverables. Here are some perspectives to help you with your management decision.

Manage the Madness

Some manager believe that regardless of external supporting events, the business needs to meet its numbers. Employees should keep focused on their jobs during work hours and save their personal interests for their personal time.

In fact, a study from Chicago-based global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., found that March Madness could cost companies upwards of $1.8 billion in lost productivity annually. They claim that productivity suffers as employees study the teams in more detail than they do their work spreadsheets before they enter the office betting pools and watch live streaming broadcasts of the tournament games during office hours.

Their research showed that people in offices all over the country attested to the fact that coworkers took vacation days or called in sick in order to watch the first round games.

Have fun to build team spirit and commitment

For managers with a strong focus on ensuring that employees feel valued and satisfied with working at the company so that they stay, they look for opportunities like March Madness to create fun and camaraderie.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. has also ound that many successful companies have found ways to “embrace the tournament as a team-building and morale-boosting opportunity.” Challenger’s CEO, John Challenger, stated, “The key for companies is finding a way to maximize the positive aspects of March Madness so that they outweigh any potential negatives.”

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Additionally, OfficeTeam surveyed 1,000 senior managers where 22 percent said that March Madness can improve productivity and 41 percent said that they felt that it can be a boost to employee morale.

“The NCAA basketball tournament is a common topic of conversation at the office as employees may share college allegiances,” said OfficeTeam’s executive director Robert Hosking. “It can be a healthy diversion if employers encourage team-building activities tied to the games.”

Take the middle road

Some managers believe that this is just not a big deal, so they will manage performance or attendance situations on a case-by-case basis and will not encourage March Madness office activity or pools during the work day. To them, all of this is simply not worth a lot of management attention.

In fact, most managers across the country tend to look the other way as employees discuss their teams and only step in when the work is not getting done. Some management experts argue that employers have bigger issues to address than whether a few workers are using work time to fill out brackets or checking scores online, and that businesses would be better served by allowing this minor distraction, even during busy work times.

How some companies cope

Here are a few ways that companies use March Madness to create a positive work environment while managing the potential disruptions to work productivity:

  1. Make it clear to your employees that you like to have fun and want them to also enjoy work and the March Madness activities while encouraging them not to let March Madness “sideline” their work.
  2. Put televisions in the break rooms so that employees have somewhere to watch the games other than the Internet. That way, connectivity is not slowed and productivity lost even for those not participating in the Madness activities. Provide snacks for the viewers.
  3. Keep the brackets posted and updated in the break room.
  4. Organize a company-wide pool with no entry fee in order to avoid ethical or legal issues surrounding “office gambling”. Give away a company “gift” to the pool winner (not cash).
  5. Allow employees to wear their favorite team’s clothing and/or dress up their workspace in their team’s colors.
  6. Offer flexible schedules. On the days when tournament games are played during work hours, allow workers the opportunity to arrive early so they can work a full shift and still leave in time to see the games if it is important to the employee.
  7. Review company policy with your employees before engaging in any March Madness activities at work, so it will be clear to all what is considered acceptable.

Could it be a morale booster?

Consider using March Madness this year and give your employees a little extra attention to boost morale and employee retention. A little distraction could be just what everyone needs.

However, if an employee fails to meet a deadline or if customer service suffers as a result of March Madness distractions, then take action.

If employees are getting all of their work done and customers are happy and the biggest problems are reduced Internet bandwidth or a little more noise in the cubicles or lunchroom for a couple of days, it would be worth it for the positive employee relations it could create. The key is to find a way to maximize the positive aspects of March Madness while minimizing the disruptions to the business.

Decide how you’ll be playing this before the opening tipoff and the Madness begins!

Laura Kerekes is the Chief Knowledge Officer for ThinkHR. She applies her extensive human resources and general management experience to a broad range of services for her clients, including: strategic HR consulting, interim human resources executive assignments and compliance/OD/training. Contact her at lkerekes@thinkhr.com.

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