Is March Madness really a drag on workplace productivity?

You’ve heard of employees missing work because of the “blue flu” or even the “brown-bottle flu,” but if the Wisconsin men’s basketball team advances beyond the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 this year (or even if it doesn’t), you may see another mysterious ailment infecting local March Madness-obsessed office workers.

Call it the cardinal-and-white flu.

As you know, those are the official colors of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (hope you didn’t think that was common red you were wearing, you philistine) — and you’ll not only see them on the backs, bums, and britches of your co-workers in the next couple of weeks, you’ll also notice them seeping into their brains.

“Many employees are taking on heavier workloads, so non-monetary benefits such as March Madness activities have an especially important role right now in increasing morale.” — Rachel Idso, branch manager, OfficeTeam

To some employers, that presents a problem.

Even for businesses in towns without a nationally acclaimed, top-seeded team to root for, the potential for a tournament-related work slowdown is real and, if one annual wet blanket of a study is to be believed, fairly serious.

As it has every spring for the past several years, Chicago-based executive outplacement services provider Challenger, Gray & Christmas recently released its estimate of how much the U.S. economy stands to lose because of productivity slowdowns related to March Madness.

This year, notes the company, employers will likely be dinged to the tune of $1.9 billion.

That figure takes into account workers researching teams’ strengths and weaknesses during office hours, filling out brackets, and monitoring games while they’re supposed to be checking P&L statements — to say nothing of the mental energy involved in trying to recall whether you took Arkansas or Wofford to advance past the first round.

Of course, for a company with “Christmas” in its name, CG&C sure seems to have a Grinchy knack for spoiling many Americans’ favorite spring pastime, but according to the company’s CEO, John Challenger, that $1.9 billion might actually be a low estimate.

“That figure might be on the conservative side, considering this year could garner a lot more interest from even casual basketball fans eager to see if Kentucky can continue its undefeated season through the tournament,” stated Challenger in a press release.

Not a slam-dunk?

But is it fair to say the NCAA tournament is necessarily a drag on U.S. manufacturing and commerce? Anyone who’s ever filled out an NCAA bracket for a friendly office-wide competition knows that it can be a team-building exercise like no other — and one that can contribute significantly to office morale.

Judging by an informal and unscientific survey of local human resources professionals, the other side of the “lost productivity” ledger tends to make March Madness a net positive when all is said and done.

In addition, a recent survey conducted by OfficeTeam, a global staffing service with an office in Madison, found that half of senior managers believe that activities tied to the NCAA tournament have a positive impact on employee morale, while 36% claim they actually boost employee productivity. That compares to 49% who believe the tournament has no impact on productivity, 13% who think it has a “somewhat negative” impact, and a sour 2% slice of humanity that thinks it has a “very negative” effect.

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According to Rachel Idso, branch manager at OfficeTeam’s Madison office, supervisors shouldn’t be all that worried about their employees being too immersed in March Madness to function. For the most part, she says, employees will compensate for whatever time they miss by shifting their hours or staying late. And while it’s important for workers not to obsess about their brackets, the tournament can be a good way to bring out team spirit in the workplace.

“Many employees are taking on heavier workloads, so non-monetary benefits such as March Madness activities have an especially important role right now in increasing morale and keeping workers motivated in their positions,” said Idso.

According to Diane Hamilton, a human resources blogger for IBMadison.com and the owner and founder of Calibra, a Madison-based coaching and consulting firm, tournament-related office activities tend to be a net plus for employers (though she acknowledges she may be a bit biased because she’s a “huge” Badgers and college basketball fan). She points out that the majority of HR professionals believe office pools have a positive impact on the workplace. In fact, a 2013 poll conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 70% of HR professionals thought that office pools had a positive impact on relationship-building among employees, while 54% thought they helped enhance employee engagement.

“In general, [March Madness] creates a lot of energy throughout the organization,” said Hamilton. “I know people who don’t watch games during the season get involved in bracket discussions and office pools.”

But what about that $1.9 billion hit that U.S. employers will supposedly take because of the temporary disengagement of their employees?

“Time is obviously spent away from the job while employees discuss their brackets, celebrate wins, and commiserate over a loss, so it is easy to conclude that productivity is affected,” said Hamilton. “But there are also intangible benefits that positively affect productivity in the long run.”

That sentiment is echoed by most area HR professionals.

In fact, some companies go beyond looking the other way come NCAA tournament time to the point of encouraging participation.

Madison-based First Weber Group holds a company- and affiliate-wide March Madness contest sponsored by its CEO. Three top prizes are offered, and no entry fee is required. In addition, the UW’s games play on office TVs during the tournament. But according to Kathy Konichek, human resources director at First Weber, most people are conscientious when it comes to completing their brackets at home and checking them online only during break times.

“If done right, there is minimal disruption to the workplace and lost productivity,” said Konichek.

At Smart Solutions, an IT consulting firm based in Madison, HR manager Mandy Basham doesn’t fret too much about the distractions office pools can create — partly because her office doesn’t formally participate in March Madness activities and partly because the tournament is something that brightens the mood of so many employees at so many different companies.

Because it offers so much value from a team-building perspective, then, Basham believes that employers should adopt a hands-off policy when it comes to those ubiquitous brackets.

“I feel that as long as it’s under control and not a huge problem to productivity, employers should leave it alone,” said Basham.

In fact, notes Ashley Herritz, a human resources generalist at Smart Motors in Madison, simply allowing employees to fill out brackets and fritter away a little work time talking about them could be a cheap option for businesses that want to boost employee engagement and team cohesion.

“Compared to the amount of money spent annually on trying to enhance company culture, morale, and a positive work environment, that is a drop in the bucket,” said Herritz.

Meanwhile, some area companies go to extraordinary lengths to encourage participation in tournament-related events. TeamSoft, a Madison IT consulting and staffing firm, sponsors a March Madness fundraiser and happy hour. Last year, the company raised money for the March of Dimes, and this year it will direct funds to the Madison School & Community Recreation’s extramural basketball program.

For Nick Nelson, marketing specialist/social media coordinator at TeamSoft, whether a company takes a productivity hit as a result of March Madness really depends on the company culture.

“I can see how some companies lose more in productivity with March Madness than others,” said Nelson. “We have a pretty professional bunch here, and it doesn’t get out of hand. A significant loss in productivity has never been a real issue for us. Also, the post-winter morale boost associated with the fun of March Madness is nice to see across the office.”

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