Workers Distracted by March Madness - Tuesday 14th of March 2006

by Jennifer Robinson

Las Vegas Gaming Wire

LAS VEGAS If you're Tjeerd Brink's boss, it's time to cover your ears and close your eyes.

We definitely don't want you to find out that someday, sometime, somewhere this week, Brink will be watching basketball during office hours.

Brink is among the millions of Americans who will succumb beginning Thursday to March Madness, a nearly three-week frenzy of college basketball games designed to anoint the champion of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Brink, the director of finance at the Palms and a University of Kansas alumnus, won't be able to help himself when his beloved Jayhawks take the court.

"If a KU game is on, I will find a way to watch it," Brink said. "If it happens to be in the middle of the day, I'll work late or come in early and work around the game to make sure I get things done."

Legions of college-basketball fans such as Brink share an elaborate set of March rituals: filling out brackets for betting pools, regularly checking win-loss tallies and surfing Internet scoreboards. This year, for the first time, CBS Sports will offer free online viewing of tournament games, making it easier than ever for fans to watch the proceedings from their cubicles.

However, those activities occupy precious daytime minutes when employees would otherwise be, ahem, working.

Productivity lost along the road to the Final Four will cost companies up to $3.8 billion through the championship game on April 3, predicts a new survey from the Chicago placement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

The company based its estimate on an average American hourly wage of $18, as well as a 2005 Gallup poll indicating that 41 percent of Americans are fans of college basketball. Based on a total national labor force of 142.8 million, that would peg the number of college-hoops lovers in the workplace at about 58.5 million people, said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

For every 13.5 minutes basketball fans spend during work hours watching the Villanova University Wildcats beat up on some hapless 16-seed, the nation's employers will sacrifice a combined $237 million in wages, Challenger said.

But Challenger doesn't advocate clamping down on fun related to March Madness.

Rather hoops fans, clip this part out for your boss Challenger urges companies to embrace the tournament as a bonding tool to foster camaraderie in a corporate environment rife with temporary workers, short-term careerists and near-constant business travel.

"When companies can find an event around which their employees can gather and talk on some basis other than their latest business transaction, that can build trust, rapport and morale," Challenger said.

"Creating a corporate culture that people can enjoy is invaluable, especially as unemployment is dropping and employers are more worried about retaining their best people," he continued.

Even Challenger admits to spending time in the office poring over the ratings percentage index and strength of schedule data as he fills out several brackets for tournament pools. (Challenger will root for the University of Illinois, because his alma mater, Harvard University, is as likely to receive a tourney bid as Forrest Gump is to earn an academic scholarship to, well, Harvard.)

Challenger also said it's "unfair" for companies to prohibit workers from enjoying a little basketball downtime for a few minutes during the day.

"Companies today ask people to do business outside of the work day all the time, with cell phones, laptops, BlackBerrys and travel after hours," Challenger said.

"We've seen work invade personal time, and we've seen personal time invade work. The boundaries are not so clear anymore. It doesn't seem right for companies to expect people to get up at 3 a.m. to talk with a supplier in Japan and not have the same kind of more porous border that would allow for a little personal time at work."

Brink, of the Palms, agreed.

He said he doesn't mind if his employees scour the Internet for game results for a few minutes each day or stop by the Palms' sportsbook for a brief basketball fix.

"Obviously, no company wants to pay people on the clock to watch TV," Brink said. "But if people are productive and they still get their hours in for the week, it isn't a problem. I'm here countless hours every day and week, so it doesn't interfere with my work if I spend 10 minutes of my time (to check scores). I'm here all the time anyway."

Challenger has a few pointers for supervisors looking to establish parameters for behavior during March Madness.

First, organize a company pool that workers can enter free. For prizes, consider gift certificates to restaurants or stores.

Also, offer flexible schedules on days when tournament games happen during working hours. You also can give employees the option to arrive early so they can work a full shift and leave in time to catch a few games.

Keep the break-room television tuned in to coverage, and relax the dress code occasionally so fans can wear college sweatshirts to work. Post an enlarged bracket so fans can chart their picks' progress (or perish the thought! sudden death).

Challenger also suggested bestowing "most valuable player" honors on exceptional workers, using tournament terminology such as Sweet 16, Elite Eight or Final Four. For nonfans, offer "anti-tourney" prizes through a special raffle drawing for an afternoon off or a special gift from a retailer.

Accountant Alan Houldsworth is one local boss who encourages his employees to work March Madness into the day.

Houldsworth's business, Houldsworth & Co., CPAs, runs an office pool for its five employees and their friends and associates. During the tournament, two televisions in the Houldsworth offices in southwest Las Vegas display tourney games.

"We just like the excitement of tournament basketball," Houldsworth said. "It's one loss and you're out, and all the good teams are playing together. It's wall-to-wall basketball on game days."

Houldsworth, a fan of the Runnin' Rebels of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he trusts his employees to set proper limits on their sports frenzy.

"I don't feel we're losing productivity," he said. "Everyone knows there's work to be done. Maybe it gets done a day or two later than normal, but it still gets done. It's that time of year. If it happened every week, then, yeah, there'd be a problem. But how can I get upset at my employees for enjoying (March Madness) when I'm doing the same thing?"

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