The workplace will soon be abuzz with “March Madness” — 68 men’s teams and 64 women’s teams are competing for the NCAA annual national basketball championship. The tournament starts on March 19, 2013, and ends on April 9. March Madness creates a number of issues and opportunities in the workplace. Losses of productivity from employees using social media and the Internet and participating in NCAA brackets or office pools during work time are the most challenging. 

Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.’s annual survey predicts that about one-third of all workers will spend at least three hours per day watching the tournament during work. The survey estimates March Madness will cost U.S. companies $134 million in “lost wages” in the first two days of the tournament alone, with approximately three million workers tuning in to the games rather than working. Another survey by MSN and Impulse Research stated that 16 percent of workers could spend five hours or more watching games instead of working. Twelve percent of employees admit to calling in sick in years past in order to watch the basketball tournament. While the accuracy of these reports has been widely debated, much of the NCAA tournament is played during normal working hours. In fact, devices like the CBS “Boss Button,” a button that can be used to conceal the tournament webcast behind a faux “spreadsheet,” can be accessed easily at work through the Internet. Sources estimate the “Boss Button” gets clicked over three million times during the tournament.

What to do? Begin by reviewing the impact of “March Madness” on your workplace by considering the following:

  • Sports betting is illegal in most states. Only a handful of states (i.e., Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana) allow it. Therefore, companies should consider reminding employees about rules and policies prohibiting workplace gambling. If an employer allows employees to run an NCAA pool, a prize, if awarded, should be non-monetary, such as tickets to a sporting or other event, or a gift card without a monetary buy-in and without the organizer taking a cut. All participants should be at least 18 years old. 
  • To the extent pools are permitted, all non-monetary pools or bracket contests should be consistent with the companies’ policies on non-solicitation. In other words, treat these types of pools, if allowed, just as the company would any other form of office solicitation, whether they be for school or sports fundraisers, charities, or the like.
  • Companies also may have concerns regarding the burden on IT and computer systems and the taxing impact of video streaming basketball games on its bandwidth. Employers complain frequently that “March Madness” exacts a toll on these systems. They also lament that downloading and streaming is available from virtually everyone’s workplace computer and smartphone. These employers should familiarize their employees with their policies on computer usage by redistributing copies in a timely manner. They should consider also designating a “tournament break room” with a television in a conference center or other office area. This may help control the environment, and, more critically, reduce the drain on the company’s IT system. 
  • These issues aside, though, the tournament can be a positive workplace experience. It can build camaraderie, morale and a controlled outlet for employees to check out the action intermittently during the workday. In a recent survey, OfficeTeam found that one in five managers believes that March Madness boosts office and employee morale. After reviewing dress code policies and considering whether it makes sense to relax them for a few days, companies might consider allowing employees to wear clothing or accessories supporting their favorite tournament-bound teams. Gatherings in the break room can support team-building and create shared experiences. Encouraging short breaks for groups of employees to catch glimpses of the tournament and providing a place to congregate can create a fun environment for employees looking for a work respite. They then can return to work re-charged and re-energized.

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Employers should anticipate how the tournament may impact the workplace and its operations. Consider ways to use “March Madness” to boost morale and camaraderie, while minimizing the loss of productivity and unauthorized use of company technology and equipment.