March Madness Wastes Less Office Time Than Daydreaming

PHOTO: Experts discuss whether or not March Madness helps or hurts office productivity.

Good news for slackers: Evidence suggests that playing March Madness at work might actually improve productivity. And two new surveys show employer antipathy to office fun-and-games is mellowing.

One survey, released earlier this month by online staffing service OfficeTeam, finds managers' attitudes toward their employees' playing March Madness (the NCAA's basketball tournament) have changed dramatically: In 2010, 22 percent of executives said they viewed March Madness activities, including watching games and betting, as having an adverse effect on employee output.

Now, however, only 9 percent retain that same negative view. Seventy-five percent think playing March Madness at work has no impact on productivity; and 16 percent call its impact either "somewhat positive" or "very positive."

Robert Hosking, executive director of Menlo, Calif.-based OfficeTeam, said he thinks one explanation might be the strengthening economy. In 2010, he speculates, employers were having to find ways to do more with less.

"Taking time away from work has more impact," he said, "when you're stretched thin."

Now, having weathered the downturn, they might be less worried about productivity.

He offered a second explanation: Fewer employees now work a standard 9-to-5 day. The line between office and home has become blurred, he says, with more workers opting to finish tasks at home that they had left undone at the office, sometimes because they used office time for personal recreation.

"Absolutely, they are making up time at home," Hosking said. "There's much more flexibility today than there was a few years ago. Your job still needs to get done. But if you come in early or work at home, employers are OK with that."

What's necessary, he says, is that employers be clear what rules apply to a diversion such as March Madness. OfficeTeam suggests five rules, including requiring employees to request time off in advance to watch the playoffs.

A second survey, this one done by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas of Chicago, estimates that nearly one-third of all U.S. employees spend three hours or more watching March Madness hoops during the workday. During the first two days of the tourney, it finds, goofing off amounts to at least $134 million worth of work not performed.

CEO John Challenger says the cost doesn't show up on employers' bottom line. Like Hosking, he speculates that employees are doing the work, they're just not doing it in the office.

"In the end, March Madness will have little if any effect on employers," Challenger said.

It won't register even as "a blip" in the overall economy. "Sequestration is going to have a far bigger impact," he added.

Not all managers are comfortable with employees' playing games, Challenger notes. "They see somebody at a desk who's looking at a game," he said. "They think they're losing control of that person; that a product is leaking away."

And, he admits, that might be true in some cases. "Certain people are less responsible," he said. "Work gets shirked."

What happens to such people? "They get fired," he added.

A sports junkie who's not getting any work done, whose "rotten behavior" has become a bad influence on co-workers might find himself asked "to adapt his behavior," Challenger said.

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