March Madness is upon us. If you work in an office anything like mine, sports gambling pools are the unofficial employee morale booster, conversation starter and excuse to get together for a pint when drafting your fantasy whatever team.

But are sports pools a time waster and a hit on the company’s productivity bottom line? 

According to the statistics referred to in the US outplacement services blog @work, the productivity dip is real:

"A 2009 Microsoft/MSN survey found that 45 percent of Americans planned to enter at least one college basketball pool last year. Assuming that at least that many plan to participate in pools this year, Challenger applied that percentage to total payroll employment in February (129,526,000) to approximate that as many as 58.3 million workers could participate in office pools this year (45% of the total non-farm workforce).

According to the latest available data on average weekly earnings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these workers earn $748 per week or about $18.70 per hour (based on 40-hour work week). That breaks down further to earnings of about $6.23 every 20 minutes.

So, among the 58.3 million office pool participants, every 20 minutes of unproductive work time costs employers roughly $363.2 million (58.2 million X $6.23). It is conceivable that workers participating in pools could waste an average of at least 20 minutes per day the week between Selection Sunday (March 14) and the end of the first round (March 19), when March Madness-related activity is at its height as people research teams, put together their brackets and watch games online during work hours.

“By the end of that first week, employers across the country may pay unproductive workers a total of $1.8 billion,” said Challenger, multiplying the $363.2 million by five.

So yes, we apparently spend time during work hours tracing the success of our NCAA brackets

And I can also tell you that there may be a bit of a dip in productivity when the new baseball season starts at the beginning of April, not to mention the week leading up to that as fantasy team drafts take place across the continent, or on April 12 itself, when the Toronto Blue Jays  home opener takes place.  And let’s not talk about October when all the different major leagues sports are in full swing at the same time.

Many challenge whether the loss is really that big.  In his blog post on Slate, Jack Shafer persuasively (in my view) argues that the numbers are inflated and likely bogus.

So what’s an employer to do?

If you believe the productivity dip is indeed a problem, certain tangible issues can be dealt with directly:

  • Is the IT bandwidth saturated with online viewing of the games?  Then block out the specific URLs causing the problem.
  • Are employees huddling behind their computer looking a little too engaged, likely engrossed in the game rather than the assignment you gave them?  Then hold those group meetings you were intending to hold in the near future now to pull staff away from their computers.
  • Too much paper being used up printing mock draft lineups, online fantasy league cheat sheets and/or bracket templates?  Start monitoring the printers and speak to the culprits.

But will this really improve productivity?  Most believe that a happy worker is a productive one.  The manner in which you deal with this is more of a business and HR issue than a legal issue. 

Of course the employer reserves the right to manage the workplace, direct assignments, supervise staff and dictate priorities.  What legal recourse would an employee have if you disciplined him or her for spending too much personal time at work?  Unless the discipline was egregious or completely inconsistent with past management style, there is not a lot that the employee can do.

What is your workplace doing?  Embracing the comradeship?  Ignoring the issue?  Banning the time wasters?  If you have some effective techniques for dealing with this tricky problem, I’d love to hear from you.

 MAY 12, 2010 NOTE:

For Canadians, workplace productivity and the NHL playoffs may prove an even bigger issue than the US-based March Madness – especially as long as the Montreal Habs hang in there.  Here’s my interview on CBC’s The Current about office productivity and sports pools.