No one knows who's going to win the NCAA basketball tournament, which begins today. But even before tipoff of the first game, it's easy to predict the one sure loser: workplace productivity.
For one Sunday night a year, the Super Bowl draws more glitter and bigger ratings, but March Madness, spread over three weeks and myriad social media, has gone viral and become the greatest annual sporting drain on worker attention and productivity.
Basketball junkies indulging their habit at work by watching TV or surreptitiously checking their laptops or iPhones could cost U.S. businesses $200 million in lost productivity, says Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a workplace consultant. It estimates that 2.5 million workers will spend an average of 90 minutes at work focusing on round ball and that companies will pay $175 million in wages to these distracted fanatics in the first two full days of the tourney: today and Friday. Workers streaming March Madness games online also can eat up bandwidth and make company computers slow as molasses.
What's a company to do? "Embrace the Madness" is the answer for a growing number of companies, especially those with a large number of young workers perpetually connected to the outside world through social media. Any attempt to lower a cone of silence over the office blocking March Madness would be futile.
"The Millennials have grown up on the Internet," said Bill Peppler, CEO of Kavaliro, an Orlando staffing firm. "This has become part of their world. To tell them not to be online or use social media just isn't realistic."
Peppler, 38 and a hoops fan himself, has given March Madness a full embrace. Today he is treating 10 staffers to lunch at a place with TVs tuned to first-round games. In the office he's fine with the junkies checking on games occasionally but frowns on streaming games live, consuming bandwidth and slowing down workers who are trying to do business.
"We monitor it," Peppler said. "There are not a lot of closed doors here, so we can see what's happening."
Mike Groeneveld, 23, a Kavaliro worker, admits March Madness is a major distraction but adds, "It's our personal responsibility to get our jobs done." He checks scores online but does not tie up company computers to watch games. He has a personal iPod and app for that, which he places under his computer screen.
CBR Public Relations in Maitland is so March Madness-friendly, it could pass for an ESPN studio.
"We've already got managers hanging Gator banners from the walls," said owner Lori Booker. "We have TV screens everywhere tuned to games. March Madness is like spring break. It brings a spirit of camaraderie and play competition in the office. We strain our brains so much all year, it's nice to have some days like this. It's never interfered with client work."
The playful competition is fueled by a basketball version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Everyone claims to have connections to various teams in the tournament -- particularly if they get to the Final Four -- even if they never stepped foot on those campuses. Groeneveld graduates next month from the University of Central Florida, but the Knights did not make the tourney, so he is rooting for Kentucky because "I've got a buddy who goes to UK, and figured I would jump on the bandwagon."
Peppler is a UCF grad and fierce loyalist, but with the Knights on the sideline, he's rooting for Duke -- his niece is a student there. He has been filling out March Madness brackets since college and has embraced that, too, in the office -- with a twist. Kavaliro employees in Orlando, as well as offices in Tampa and Charlotte, pay $10 to fill out a tourney bracket. The winner gets $150, and 25 percent of the take goes to a community food drive.
At CBR, it's a mad, mad, mad March Madness pool. The winner usually gets a free meal. The worst loser, as decided by the tribe, is given a booby prize. A guy who hates chocolate had to keep the office candy dish filled with chocolate for a year. A senior manager was receptionist for a day. A Gator hater had his picture taken in a Gator cap and posted on Facebook.
"I'm not aware of any betting pools for money," Booker said.
Just for the record, betting on basketball games is illegal under Florida law, as are many other forms of sports gambling. But in practice, companies and law-enforcement agencies take a don't-ask, don't-tell approach to March Madness office pools.
"I can't recall any prosecutions under the statute," said Assistant State Attorney Joe Cocchiarella.
If the Gators defy the experts and make it to the Final Four, Booker said, it will be the first time all year that video recorders in the office will be set to record basketball instead of the local news stations. Bet on it.
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