March Madness a march to lower work productivity

A month of lost workplace productivity officially begins Monday with the start of March Madness.

The brackets for the NCAA men's basketball championship tournament will be picked Sunday, and although the games don't begin until Tuesday, the annual march of not doing much work at work begins Monday when workers will return to work with bracket printouts in hand to join office pools to see if they can pick which of 64 teams will win the tournament.

The global outplacement consultancy firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that workers distracted by March Madness could cost employers as much as $1.8 billion in unproductive wages during the first week of the tournament, which ends April 5 with the championship game.

And that loss is based on only 20 minutes of wasted time per day. That probably only includes a few peeks at scores throughout the day.

The real time suck is in watching games stream live on the Internet, a task that could decrease Internet speeds at work. The service was first launched in 2003.

Approximately 20,000 viewers purchased March Madness on Demand, as the video service is called, in 2005, and last year saw 8.6 million total hours of streamed audio and video during the tournament. Last year the Web streaming service attracted 7.52 million unique visitors, up 75% from 4.92 million in 2008.

CBS Sports also reported last year that there were 2.77 million clicks on the "Boss Button," which allows viewers to watch the games from work but quickly pull up a fake spreadsheet if someone walks by their computer.

During the first two days of the tournament, about half of the 32 games are played during business hours. West Coast fans can watch games as early as 9 a.m. The drop in worker output lessens as the tournament moves beyond the first two rounds because few games are played during office hours.

Some companies restrict sites such as CBS Sports and ESPN, hoping to keep their employees away from the madness. But in the spirit of March Madness fun, has created a free bracket manager in Microsoft Excel because Excel isn't restricted in the workplace.

Some 45% of Americans said in 2009 that they planned to enter a NCAA pool, according to one survey. Another survey found that nearly one in five workers entered a March Madness office pool.

While the gambling is illegal, most companies consider the brackets a morale builder at work.

"It can draw people together, which is a positive thing. You're able to use those moments for interpersonal relationships," said Don Forsyth, a professor of ethical leadership at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

The month's distractions can build teams that are more productive after experiencing those tournament rituals like brackets, Forsyth told WalletPop in an e-mail.

Dallas-based advertising agency OnMessage has turned the interest in the tournament into a chance to increase productivity by allowing its workers and clients to network and socialize at its March Madness mixer while watching games on a big TV screen at its office.

Jumping on the band wagon is good for building relationships, Forsyth said.

"Wanting to bond psychologically with others is normal -- so normal, it's part of human nature," Forsyth said in an e-mail. "We're conformists. We're going along with what other people do. If everyone is a fan of basketball in March, then we'll be fans of basketball in March."

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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