March Madness Wastes Less Office Time Than Daydreaming

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

1SaleADay, a Miami deal-a-day company that sells (among other things) watches, jewelry and electronics, permits Madness, but only in moderation. Eli Federman, senior vice president, says he got fed up some time ago with what the calls his employees' "frolicking outside the work context."

He stopped that by replacing office access to Facebook with access to an in-house platform called Yammer, which permits interaction only with other company employees.

Federman's employees can talk about March Madness during the workday, and he encourages them do so, as a way to build camaraderie and boost morale. "When they're excited, they work better," he says.

But they cannot play March Madness in the office. He views it, because of its sports-focus and finite duration, as less pernicious than social media, which he calls "a vortex of social mayhem" designed to seduce the idle.

Tom Lutz, author of "Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America," sees two truths about March Madness: Everybody slacks off from time to time, and slacking off may make us more productive:

"All of us find ways to slack off," Lutz told ABC News. "Right now, I am talking to a reporter about March Madness, instead of taking care of things I should have done weeks ago."

Communal forms of slacking -- water-cooler chats are the classic example, he says, although they probably have been replaced by texting -- aren't just important for morale, Lutz says.

Studies show them to be important for innovation and productivity, as well. "March Madness brackets falls into this category," he said.

Very few people, Lutz says, can sustain peak productivity throughout an eight-hour work day. Nor is that a problem, because lost time can be a potent motivator. Nothing so promotes efficiency or concentrates the mind than the realization that you're about to miss a deadline.

For that reason, he said, "Lost time is very rarely lost."

No matter how complex our cultural play or gaming might become, he says ("March Madness can get into some very high-order statistical analysis"), nothing will ever incinerate as many billable hours as good-old daydreaming. "It can happen mid-sentence, it can happen as we open a file, and it is undetectable by any monitoring device," he said.

Compared to time spent daydreaming, time spent on March Madness is "a drop in the bucket." And, in his view, the Madness promotes morale.

It's "a great way to feel part of a group that is on a shared mission," Lutz said, "rather than fantasizing about never having to see any of these people again as long as we live."