Don’t worry about the March Madness productivity loss too much


Akil Mitchell, left, and Justin Anderson  of the Virginia Cavaliers high-five during their game against the Duke Blue Devils  on March 16  in Greensboro, N.C. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

It's that time of year again. Not just for basketball games and brackets, but for stories about how all those basketball games and brackets are sapping workers' productivity.

They're as inevitable this time of year as Duke or Kentucky being part of the NCAA tournament. "March Madness costs $1.2 billion for every unproductive hour," the Columbus Dispatch reported Wednesday. "March Madness Ready to Distract Workers Nationwide," wrote Fox Business last week. "Say Farewell to Productivity: March Madness App released," declared PC Mag Friday.

The headlines are the result, at least in part, of an annual report from the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas that calculates the potential cost to U.S. employers. This year's news release, which looks at Bureau of Labor Statistics data, numbers from Turner Sports and a couple of surveys about when and how much people watch the tournament, finds that "companies stand to lose at least $1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament." While it calls those "scary numbers," the release does advise managers "not to clamp down on March Madness," or risk doing damage to employee morale.

This yearly ritual is a little overblown. The Challenger report admits that "statistics on how many American workers are participating in office pools and watching games online when they should be working are a little harder to come by" than data on the teams playing in the tournament itself. One of the surveys it cites, for instance, was an online survey, and Challenger admitted that while more than 100 million workers could be distracted by the tourney, that's only "if that survey pool was representative of the U.S. working population." Big if.

Moreover, when academic research crunched the numbers on whether work is affected by viewing games and filling out brackets, it found the answer to be yes, but not in a serious way. Charles Clotfelter, a professor at Duke University and author of "Big-Time Sports in American Universities," wrote in 2012 that "the tournament has a profound and widespread impact on patterns of work" (he studied how often faculty and students view academic journal libraries at 75 different university libraries during the tournament) but wouldn't claim that these effects had a big impact on productivity.

"Besides the possible boost in morale associated with this annual ritual," Clotfelter wrote on Harvard Business Review's Web site, "common sense suggests that those who follow successful teams will come to anticipate success and simply learn to budget their time, making sure to leave enough time to watch their team play. For those who expect their team to lose, the opposite occurs: They can plan to work after their cherished team goes down in defeat."

Corporate managers have figured this out. A survey released March 5 of 300 senior leaders by OfficeTeam, a staffing service for administrative professionals, found that just 11 percent of managers think the NCAA tournament has a negative impact on productivity, with 27 percent saying it has a positive one and 62 percent saying it has no impact. Its survey also found that 33 percent of managers said March Madness has a positive impact on morale. That's why some companies go so far as to embrace the tournament openly, with friendly competitions designed to boost sales, benefits that give days off during the tournament, or flexibility to watch while working. (DISH Network announced Monday that it is offering its employees "Bracket Breaks" to watch the tournament — but the perk is connected to a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign the company is rolling out for its mobile live TV service.)

Marketing and publicity, of course, are one big reason we're having this discussion at all. Beyond Challenger's annual news release, I regularly get pitches offering experts on "how to manage the madness" or deal with "sports absenteeism," each piggybacking on the annual inevitability of such headlines in the media.
Surely IT networks get gunked up with traffic during the tournament, slowing down Internet speeds and limiting office bandwidth. And it sounds like productivity very well may take a dip for a week or so in some workplaces.

But here's the thing: Many of the people taking time to fill out their office bracket or surreptitiously catch the last two minutes of a game while at work are also answering e-mail while they sit on their couches at home. Worrying about how much productivity is lost a few weeks every spring ignores how much productivity is gained when employees do work while watching sports at home the rest of the year.

So let's cool it a little on the March Madness productivity panic. The intertwining of our professional and personal lives is not really news. And it's not going to change anytime soon.

Read also:

The best (and worst) time to do things at work

The three types of job burnout

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · March 14