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Productivity change? Blame – or credit – March Madness

Are sporting events, pop culture productivity killing workplace distractions or team-building activities?

By Todd Humber

My bracket is busted.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you probably don’t follow the south-of-the-border phenomenon known as March Madness, the frantic annual U.S. college basketball tournament that crowns a national champion. The one loss and you’re out format makes for some pretty compelling, high stakes games.

It also makes for some pretty stimulating water cooler conversations among the sports fans in the office, and that inevitably leads to speculation and some eye-popping numbers about lost workplace productivity during major events.

Consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas is particularly good at trotting out these numbers. This year, it said about 50 million Americans are taking part in March Madness office pools, and companies stand to lose at least $1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament. (And even that estimate could be low.)

The same goes for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Super Bowl and the Grey Cup. Anything that distracts workers from the task on hand is going to have a drag on productivity or will task Internet connections as employers stream live audio and video.

But it’s not limited to just sporting events — I’ve seen similar predictions over the years about major movies, like when the new Star Wars film debuted. Or conversations about the latest Survivor contestant to be voted out. And did you see who was murdered on The Good Wife? Unbelievable.

Major sporting events and pop culture, it seems, can be productivity killers. But this article from Bloomberg Business Week framed it in a different light. What if, instead of viewing these distractions as productivity killers, we viewed them through the team-building lens?

I can tell you — and here’s hoping my CEO doesn’t read this blog — that this office ground to a halt in February when the Canadian women’s hockey team was playing for gold against the Americans. Every worker on my floor was crowded around a couple of workstations, decked out in red-and-white with live streams from CBC running. (Interestingly, some of the streams were a good 30 seconds ahead of others, so some employees were celebrating Canadian goals that had yet to occur on the screen I was watching.)

But it made for fun afternoon at work, a brief respite from the constant crush of the deadlines we all face, and it got employees talking to each other, laughing and sharing in the gold medal victory.

If we believe all the benefits that come along with team-building activities, than perhaps all this idle office chatter and so-called “lost productivity” isn’t such a bad thing? In the long run, these distractions may actually boost productivity and engagement.

But back to my bracket. After this weekend’s games, my bracket — my picks for who will win each game throughout the tournament — is thoroughly busted. (It’s so impossible to make perfect picks all the way through that Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans teamed up to offer a US$1 billion cash prize for anyone who picked the correct winner in every game. We’re down to the final four teams and it has already been announced that nobody will be able to claim that prize this year.)

I picked my favourite school — Michigan — to go all the way this year, and they lost to Kentucky in a heartbreaker on Sunday.

But I won’t despair. I’ll just find a buddy to commiserate with, knowing that what I’m really doing (and this is the part my CEO should read) is boosting my engagement and productivity.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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