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Here's how to convince your boss it's OK to watch March Madness at work
Reports of lost productivity have been greatly exaggerated
 
No, your whole office probably won't wind up at Steve's computer to watch the games.
No, your whole office probably won't wind up at Steve's computer to watch the games. (Thinkstock)

March Madness is here once again, which means two things: 1) Everyone in your office now thinks they're bracketologists, and 2) We're deluged with stories about how terrible the tournament is for worker productivity. But though both annual occurrences are as indelible to the Big Dance as Dick Vitale, they're also both eminently false.

"March Madness ready to distract workers nationwide," declares Fox Business, citing one study that claims companies could lose an astounding $1.2 billion from preoccupied employees this year. Other stories on the subject parrot the same study — which comes from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas — with no degree of incredulity either.

As it turns out though, the study is quite dubious. To the methodology:

A 2009 Microsoft survey estimated that 50 million Americans will participate in March Madness office pools. If each of those 50 million workers spend just one hour of work time filling in their brackets, the cost to employers in terms of wages paid to unproductive workers would be $1.2 billion, based on average hourly earnings of $24.31 reported in the most recent employment report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (50,000,000 X $24.31 = $1,215,500,000) [Challenger Gray]

The study goes on to suggest the $1.2 billion figure could actually climb higher, citing more recent surveys that indicate many workers use company time to fill out and check on their brackets. Yet the methodology is nonetheless a slapdash amalgamation of estimates and assumptions. The math involved in the calculation above goes, roughly: 4-year-old estimate + arbitrary assumption x arbitrary wage data point = $1.2 billion. There is no attempt to more accurately identify average wages of "distracted" workers based on viewership demographics, nor any reliable data supporting the self-reported one hour of time workers supposedly spend on tournament activities during business hours.

Given those statistical pitfalls, the overall analysis isn't too reliable. And the study even concedes that "statistics on how many American workers are participating in office pools and watching games online when they should be working are a little harder to come by."

But just for a minute, let's pretend that there's definitive proof some 50 million employees will really spend an hour doing March Madness stuff at work. Even then, projecting that the tournament will torch productivity seems illogical.

Extensive research from Duke University professor Charles Clotfelter determined the tournament indeed has a "profound and widespread impact" on employee behavior. Yet those behavioral changes, he wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review, do not necessarily translate into declines in productivity. Rather, he posits that fans simply budget their regular workload around the tournament.

"American productivity probably isn't affected too much, no more than it is by, say, Thanksgiving," he concluded. "People have fun, but most of them find a way to get their work done."

That's particularly salient given that workers already spend parts of their days engaging in "unproductive" activities like coffee breaks and cafeteria chitchat. Really, how many workers can honestly say they've never hopped over to Facebook, skimmed the news, or fallen down a wiki-hole while on the clock? So how much worse off can the economy be when people are checking basketball scores instead of, say, giggling at cat gifs?

Moreover, March Madness — and other major socio-cultural events — may boost productivity in the long run by increasing office morale. Such events are premium fodder for water cooler discussions which foster staff camaraderie and general good feelings among workers. And there's ample evidence that happier workers are better for business' bottom lines.

Executives tend to agree. A survey of more than 300 company execs released this month from OfficeTeam found that almost one-quarter of execs say "activities in the workplace" boost productivity, more than twice as many as the 11 percent who say the opposite. Some companies have gone so far as to embrace March Madness for that very reason, holding sales contests, running in-office betting pools, or even giving employees time off to watch the games.

March Madness certainly gives workers something non-work-related to pay attention to, but it's no more distracting than anything else they're already doing online. At least basketball can induce some office kinship, too.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go tweak my bracket for the millionth time.

 
Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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