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Your Company Needs You to Watch the NCAA Tournament at the Office

It’ll make your team stronger than the one on the court

We’re only one game into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and we’re already being inundated with articles telling us how much productivity will be lost to the annual March Madness playoff. In total, workplaces are expected to lose an estimated $6.3 billion in productivity throughout the three-week long tournament, as workers furiously refresh their browsers, check their brackets, surreptitiously stream games on their phones or just straight-up ditch work to go to the local sports bar.

The annual productivity loss predictions have become as much a part of March Madness as the Sweet Sixteen and Final Four — a lighthearted way for us to acknowledge the inordinate amounts of time and money we waste each year watching exploited collegiate athletes compete against each other for our pleasure.

But how did tracking productivity loss during March Madness become a tradition in the first place? And is there any legitimacy to these studies anyway?

Many companies conduct these workplace productivity stories nowadays as a way to drum up some cheap PR around the tournament, but the practice appears to have been originated by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm. (Companies hire outplacement firms to help laid-off employees find news jobs, the outplacement firm providing résumé and interview coaching, and introductions to recruiters and hiring managers.)

CG&C is still family owned-and-operated, with 31-year-old Andy Challenger, grandson of company founder James Challenger, serving as vice president. True to its family business roots, the company remains modest. Case in point: When I ask Challenger how the company feels about pioneering this particular area of research, he declines to take credit. “I don’t if that’s 100 percent true, but I know we’ve been doing it a long time,” he says.

They’ve been doing it so long, in fact, that Challenger wasn’t even sure when exactly they started. CG&C found March Madness productivity reports going back as far 2005. But some extensive Google searching reveals a CG&C March Madness study mentioned in the June 2003 issue of The Atlantic. That year, the U.S. economy was projected to lose $1.4 billion in productivity to the NCAA tournament.

Contrary to popular belief, the study was never intended to discourage companies from staging office bracket pools. “[March Madness] is one of those rare events when everyone in the office seems to get involved, not just the sports nuts,” Challenger says. “It’s really about why employers should embrace March Madness and make it part of the workplace, because it’s good for morale and has a huge culture benefit for companies.”

Indeed, the long-term benefits of embracing the tournament far outweigh any short-term reductions in productivity, according to Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze, a consulting firm that specializes in productivity and collaboration.

Obviously, an office full of employees spending the entire workday glued to CBS, or poring over scores on ESPN.com, is going to cut into productivity. But that loss is more than paid back by the camaraderie it generates. “When coworkers bond during the first two days of March Madness, cohesion is demonstrably increased,” Waber says. And cohesive teams communicate, collaborate and perform better and more effectively.

Even the time wasted during March Madness is greatly overstated. The average workers wastes six hours a day on the Thursday and Friday of the first week of the tournament. But people “procrastinate” every day at work — e.g., the average employee only spend two hours a day engaged in focused, heads-down work, Waber says. The rest of the time is filled with meetings, tending to email and other superfluous tasks.

Of course, an office can go overboard. This isn’t an excuse to stop work for every second of every game in the tournament. That would be unacceptable, according to Jay Finkelman, organizational psychologist at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. But trying to avoid the tournament altogether is futile, he adds. “Most sophisticated employers understand the inevitably of March Madness, and either elect to tolerate it surreptitiously or mount a losing campaign against it. The latter approach never works.”

In other words: You have license to do jack shit over the next couple days. If anything, it’s expected of you. Because instead of crippling the economy, it’ll actually make you a better team player.