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Monday, Jul 15, 2024
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Make March Madness A Net Gain for Morale

Sports is a huge part of lender National Funding’s culture: it has a suite at Qualcomm Stadium, stepped in at the last minute to sponsor the most recent Holiday Bowl and has dozens of intense fans on staff eager to talk about their favorite teams.

So the company’s human resources director, Cindi Helsel, is expecting the kickoff of March Madness later this week to occupy at least some of their employees’ time, including filling out online brackets, watching the games on office TVs or furtively checking scores in another browser tab.

“There will be more conversation over the cubicle walls,” Helsel said. “We have numerous TVs in the office on all day long with the sound off. People will probably look up more frequently.”

But while National Funding blocks some websites to discourage distractions, Helsel said March Madness is a major opportunity to boost morale, even if employees may spend more time this month in the company’s game room watching TV.

“We’re sales driven, so you still have to keep your numbers up,” she said.

Keeping Score

How to address potential lost productivity is a question many companies are facing as March Madness approaches. And the stakes can be high: workers distracted due to March Madness cost U.S. companies nearly $4 billion this year, according to a report from outplacement consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

More than 60 million Americans fill out brackets each year, many using work computers to research and tweak their picks, the firm said. It derived its cost figure based on the estimated times workers spent watching games or filling out brackets at work and average hourly earnings, but didn’t quantify the potential cost of multiple video streams clogging a company’s network.

March Madness doesn’t have a monopoly on worker distractions, and plenty of workers steal a few minutes here and there following election coverage, shopping online or checking social media. But the NCAA tournament is unique, Challenger vice president Andrew Challenger said, and can dominate workers’ attentions more than any other annual event.

“In an age of massive distractions in the workplace, March Madness is not just another drop in the bucket,” Challenger said. “There’s nothing else in the American workplace that’s as concentrated and as widespread.”

But Challenger isn’t recommending employers take a hard stance against March Madness office pools or communal watching parties. Some industries, like finance, may have strict regulations that prevent office gambling, but for most companies, the community-building and loyalty gained from turning a blind eye can be worth the temporary productivity loss. Given low unemployment, companies have more pressure than ever this year to keep top talent, he said.

“People are going to be spending their time doing it, whether you condone it or not, so you might as well embrace it,” Challenger said. “Wages are on the rise, so the lost productivity will cost more, but since you have to keep cultures positive, it would be more expensive to fight it.”

Sarah Canfield, HR director at Eastridge Workforce Solutions, said her company takes that advice to heart. Eastridge doesn’t promote office gambling but knows it goes on around March Madness.

“If you don’t embrace it, you’re going to lose people,” Canfield said. “But you have to hold people accountable for their jobs.”

Team Spirit

A company’s approach to March Madness, or really any productivity policy, has to be closely tailored to its internal culture in order to be successful, according to Mark Rosenberger, a San Diego-based performance specialist at HR outsourcing firm Insperity. One client let employees wear team colors to work and allowed workers to cover one anothers’ shifts for an hour or two while their favorite team was playing. Another, a manufacturer with greater concerns for worker safety, didn’t allow video streaming but supported a bracket contest.

Banning March Madness altogether is an approach he’s seen but wouldn’t recommend due to spikes in employee resistance.

“People like to be treated like adults,” Rosenberger said. “There can be important camaraderie-building opportunities and a chance to break up the mundane office environment.”

The key in any office policy is clear communication, he added, noting employees can sour on bosses changing rules soon after they’re set down. Rosenberger pointed to a company that rolled out a flex hour plan, but quickly changed it after too few workers came in at the beginning of the day to answer phones. His suggestion was to let employees know in advance that you might revise rules if productivity really dips. But employers would be better served focusing on core business issues and letting workers enjoy the championship, he said.

“Don’t get your underwear in a knot,” Rosenberger said. “At the end of the day, even the president makes brackets.”

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