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Letting employees watch March Madness

William Lee #34 of the UAB Blazers reacts after a play against the Iowa State Cyclones during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on March 19, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Read the headlines this time of year, and it might seem like there's no greater threat to the American workplace than the start of March Madness. Tech systems are getting clogged up. Employees are distracted by filling out their brackets and surreptitiously watching daytime games. The whole thing is supposedly going to cost American companies nearly $2 billion.

Yet companies are increasingly seeing March Madness as a morale booster, not a productivity killer. Advertising giant Ogilvy broadcasts the games on multiple screens and sets up free-throw hoops in its New York headquarter's cafeteria. Protiviti, a global consulting firm with more than 3,000 employees, gives the winner of its company-sponsored pool, which a third of employees joined this year, a free iPad Air and makes a charitable contribution in his or her name. The D.C. office of PricewaterhouseCoopers is donating entry fees to its office bracket pool to the nonprofit Martha's Table.

And at The Motley Fool in Alexandria, Va., employees can take part in a "bracketology" class and have a chance to win an extra two weeks of vacation and $1000 in cash. "If employers lock things down, what that ends up doing is putting the employee in a very bad spot, where they have to lie and can’t do something they enjoy," says Samantha Cicotello, the senior vice president of customer service. "What we try to do is use it to the advantage of the company."

They're not the only ones who see the annual college basketball tournament as an opportunity rather than a problem. In 2013, the Society of Human Resource Management found that nearly two-thirds of the members it polled said office pools promote team building. And in a different survey of more than 300 senior managers by OfficeTeam, just 15 percent thought March Madness activities at work had a negative effect on productivity. Half the respondents said workplace activities tied to the playoffs help lift morale, up from 32 percent the previous year.

Whether or not the tournament has a significant impact on productivity, it makes sense for companies to bring the playoffs into the office rather than trying to shut it off, says Charles Clotfelter, an economics professor at Duke University who has written about college sports in American universities. His research has found that, though the NCAA Tournament tends to rearrange how and when people work, it's not clear that it negatively affects productivity.

"The idea that you do something to build camaraderie in the workplace — especially if you know it's happening anyway — is like judo," Clotfelter says. "You take the opponent's strength and turn it into a virtue."

In addition to boosting morale, some companies say that encouraging interest in the tournament helps the company in other ways. Protiviti's head of human resources, Scott Redfearn, says that because updates about the office pool and the tournament are broadcast on the firm's intranet, the attention also drives traffic to other company communications about strategy or business results.

"We do see it as helping us improve our communication," Redfearn says. "They're trash-talking, they're bragging, or they're lamenting a loss if their alma mater is in the mix. You get a lot of communication among employees, and in that same infrastructure, there's also other company-wide messages."

The Motley Fool sees a similar advantage: building relationships across the company. "If I cheer for the University of Maryland and someone on the other side of the floor cheers for Maryland, all of a sudden we have something in common," Cicotello says. "It engenders a lot of good-natured cheering together and a lot of good-natured ribbing."

As a result, the financial services company has gone all-in to March Madness. It buys a satellite package to show all the games on screens around the office. Big games are displayed on a projection screen where snacks and drinks are served. The company awards prizes in the free-to-enter bracket contest, including prizes for things like the worst bracket and the biggest upset. Its CEO is also in the midst of a public competition with the president of Carfax — whoever has the better bracket will have to give $5000 to the charity of the other's choice.

The company also ties a monthly perk it calls "Fool's Errand" to the games every March, assigning each team in the tournament to one of 64 randomly selected employees. Longer-tenured staffers get assigned to higher seeds than their newbie peers. Then, the employee tied to the winner gets two extra weeks of vacation that needs to be used within the next month — and $1000 to spend toward it. Whoever got undefeated Kentucky would seem to be sitting pretty this year.

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