A survey released last week by job outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that the men’s college basketball tournament – which lasts three weeks – will cost $134 million in just the first two days (Thursday and Friday) of the tournament. An estimated 3 million U.S. employees will spend one to three hours at work watching the games, and two-thirds of all workers will follow the tournament at some point during work hours.
A few decades ago, the idea that employees would be able to spend hours watching a sporting event during normal working hours would’ve been unthinkable. But our work and personal lives have become completely tangled, and today most bosses are not only fine with employees who watch a few games or set up an office pool, they almost encourage it.
According to a separate survey by staffing firm OfficeTeam, when office managers and executives were asked whether the NCAA basketball tournament had a negative effect on employee productivity, 75% said there was no impact, and 16% said there was either a very positive or somewhat positive impact. And one-fifth of employers said those activities elicited a positive impact on employee morale. That’s despite the fact the tournament likely takes more than $100 million out of productivity in just two days.
“That’s a big number,” says John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, referring to how much the tournament is expected to cost businesses. “And yet, I think companies that allow their employees freedom and autonomy recognize that the workplace brings people’s personal lives in. It’s the way the modern workplace works.”
The acceptance of March Madness into the workplace is of course just one example of how the workplace has changed. Today, employees check Facebook, share YouTube videos, or instant message with friends throughout the work day. But more employees are also expected to check email in the evenings and sometimes be available on weekends. The Internet has kept us perpetually connected to our personal lives at work and tied to our work lives at home. Watching the NCAA tournament in the workplace is just an extension of that, and most employers have accepted it.
“As an employer, while hours may be 9 to 5 or 9 to 6, a great number of employees are doing things after hours they don’t even recognize or realize,” says Daryl Pigat, a spokesman for OfficeTeam. “An extended lunch or letting employees check in on games here and there can mean a lot for overall morale.”
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Within the last couple years employers seem to have given in even more to workplace tournament watching. In 2010, 22% of employers said March Madness adversely affected employee output whereas only 9% said there were negative impacts this year, according to the OfficeTeam survey. Pigat believes that’s largely because managers are more confident about the economy these days, as opposed to the more shaky recovery of a few years ago, and aren’t as inclined to micromanage every minute of their employees’ work days.
Still, there are some employers who try to limit workers’ participation in the tournament. Some try to cut off streaming video to employees because it can slow a company’s servers. For example, employees at Los Angeles City Hall were told not to watch the London Olympics on their work computers last summer over concern it could crash their systems. But with the growth of online streaming video, mobile apps, and the brilliant “Boss Button” on cbssports.com (which quickly brings up a fake Excel spreadsheet to hide live video of the tournament), each year it gets easier for employees to follow the games and harder for employers to stop them, if they even try.
“I think most employers do look the other way,” says Challenger. “There may be some work lost when there’s urgency to work, but a lot of it gets done later. Employees tend to catch up.”