American companies stand to lose at least $134 million in “lost wages” just in the first two days of this year’s NCAA Tournament, according to a recent study from Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Hebert says March Madness office pools can be a slam dunk for business owners. (Steve Helber/AP)

Every year at tournament time, studies like this get published. The executives who buy into the data wring their hands over the expensive productivity loss.

But they’re missing the point.

The myth of lost productivity

These lost productivity studies are flawed, because humans are not machines. By directly correlating hours worked to productivity, these studies measure workers like factory machines, assuming consistently productive 8-hour days the rest of the year, with the annual Final Four tournament presenting some sort of unexpected power outage.

It makes for a splashy headline, but it’s simply not accurate.

Today, work is a thing you do, not a place you go. We can work from anywhere, so productivity should be measured in output, not in presence.

Meanwhile, there’s an undervalued benefit to employee “collisions.”

You’ll never read a big expensive study about productivity drains from office water cooler conversations or leisurely outdoor lunches with co-workers during the summer. That’s because smart executives understand that such connections increase not only employee morale, but also productivity and serendipity.

At Pixar, Steve Jobs famously put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and even the bathrooms in the center of the building, so that employees would run into each other during the course of a day.

At the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas, Tony Hsieh has closed the exits and shortcuts to the parking lot, making everyone walk through the same front door entrance and hoping to maximize the number of positive, random connections. Hsieh has even coined a term for these positive, serendipitous connections — he calls them “collisions.”

The Missed Opportunity

Instead of worrying about lost productivity, business owners should see the annual tournament for what it is — the perfect gift-wrapped opportunity to maximize collisions.

Office pools are perfect for increasing collisions. When else can the quiet guy from accounting brag about his Wichita State Shockers?

When else does the administrative assistant from Northern Iowa get to trash-talk the VP about his Panthers upsetting her top-ranked Jayhawks?

Office pools already create conversations and sparks that rarely happen, but they can be amplified even more. Here are some options.

1. The skill-swap office pool

One example of using March Madness to actually increase employee engagement and camaraderie is the skill-swap office pool.

It’s a simple tweak. Instead of throwing in the typical $10 entry fee, each person instead donates a skill. It could be anything they’re good at from dancing lessons to how to build a blog.

The skills are posted publicly, so everyone learns more about their colleagues. When the tournament is over, the winner of the pool gets first choice of the available skills. Second place gets second choice and so on. Even last place wins something.

Everyone teaches. Everyone learns. Everyone wins.

2. The field trip

Everyone streaming online video can cause bandwidth problems and IT headaches. So, instead of everyone hiding the games in a browser behind a presentation deck or spreadsheet, bring teams together to watch the games, out in the open.

Teams can work from laptops in separate breakout rooms where the games are on actual TVs, or have the team take over a local sports bar with good WiFi.

3. The alma mater match

Everyone writes down either their alma mater or their favorite team.

If your chosen team is not in the tournament, you get matched with a team that has the closest match of mascots (e.g. Kentucky Wildcats and Arizona Wildcats) or by the closest match to team colors.

Now, each employee has a spot in the actual bracket, so it isn’t just Wisconsin vs. Ole Miss. It’s Walt vs. Mary.

Watch bracket games together with your mascot-match and your alma-mater “opponent”. Single games can have friendly side bets (perhaps the loser fills out both TPS reports for a month) and the overall tournament can have some type of prize incentives.

Customize the specific details to fit your organization. The goal remains the same: more collisions. Everyone will meet new people and learn about their coworkers.

So, stop the madness. This March, ignore the lost productivity studies. See the office pool as a golden opportunity — not for distraction, but to connect and engage with colleagues.

Go Badgers!

Clay Hebert is the founder and chief executive of, an enterprise discovery platform that helps organizations connect employees and unlock innovation. He is also a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an organization comprised of promising young entrepreneurs.

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