Bosses, don't make workers turn off the game

The Baltimore Sun

March is "pool time" for many Americans as they participate in office pools trying to pick the winners of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which this year begins March 15 and ends April 2.

John A. Challenger is the head of the Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., which has studied the pros and cons of running March Madness pools in the workplace. On the whole, he thinks they are a good idea.

Here are some of Challenger's thoughts on "March Madness" in the office: Isn't there a loss of productivity as workers watch the games on television and check scores on the computer?

Yes. Let me give you some math here. The average amount of time spent by visitors to, one of the most popular basketball Web sites during the tournament, is 13 1/2 minutes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average hourly wage is $16.80. So if all college basketball fans with Internet access spend just 13 1/2 minutes a day checking their brackets, the cost to employers nationwide for the unproductive wages is $88.6 million. Over the course of the tournament, if they continue to spend 13 1/2 minutes checking their brackets on each business day, the cost would be $1.1 billion. If bosses see their employees watching basketball games on television or the computer, should they crack down?

I don't think so. Some companies are quite paranoid about their employees using the Internet for something other than work. They block sites.

But I think that is a misunderstanding of the nature of today's workplace. There used to be a clear line dividing working life from personal life. But today companies are asking us to take our work home with us, to check our emails from home, we are traveling with our laptops and Blackberries. The idea that work is 9 to 5, and that after that your personal life begins, is outdated.

Companies need to be fair, to recognize that it goes both ways. That just as there is more work filling up personal time, there is more personal time filling up the workday. That is just the way the world works.

Further in a low-unemployment environment that we have now, just over 4 1/2 percent, companies are fighting to hold onto their best people. So you want to create a work setting that is flexible, where people want to stay because they are treated like adults. Most office pools have an entry fee and a cash payout. Isn't that gambling?

We have a recommendation for companies with concerns about gambling, and that is instead of having people pay $2 or $5 to get in a pool, make it free and let everybody enter. Then the company gives the winner something like a free dinner. That is what we do at our company. One year we gave restaurant gift certificates to the winner, another year gift certificates to an electronics store. You advise using the NCAA office pool as a morale builder?

Yes. The great thing about this tournament is that with 65 teams everybody has a team they can root for. Smart companies are using this event as a way to build morale, so they have team sweatshirt day when employees are encouraged to wear a shirt or hat of their favorite team. They keep a large updated bracket in a common area so workers can check the progress of their teams. What good does that do?

An office pool is great for company culture, it is a leveling device, something the CEO and the mail room worker can talk about.

It used to be that people worked for the same company all their lives and got to know each other over time. Today we have much shorter job tenures, more temps and people don't get know each other the way they once did.

Companies need to find ways to break down barriers and facilitate communication among their employees. So that price tag we laid out on this office pool ($88.6 million a day in lost wages) is actually a good buy for corporate America.

By the numnbers Here is a look at "March Madness":

65: The number of teams that will participate in the NCAA tornament

79.1 MILLION: The number of Americans who have Internet access at work.

29 PERCENT: Share of Americans who say they are college basketball fans

13.5 MINUTES: Average time spent on popular college hoops Internet sites during tournement

$1.1 BILLION: The total amount of "March Madness" could cost employers over the 13 business days of the tournament, including the extra time spent watching live streaming video of

1.3 MILLION: the number of basketball fans who signed up for March Madness on Demand in 2006

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