March Madness: Good or bad for the office?

It's that time of year in the office, when many workers steal some time to fill out a March Madness basketball bracket. And then, for some, it's on to the Internet to research their fantasy baseball drafts and prepare for Opening Day in a few weeks.

So how much time do employers lose? And do employees get a boost in morale from playing the office pool?

Not surprisingly, a substantial body of workplace research is devoted to this topic.

"Those who insist there will be no impact are kidding themselves," says John Challenger, CEO of the national outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. He's taking Internet flak from hoops fans over his firm's annual estimate that March Madness costs U.S. companies $1.8 billion in lost wages in the tournament's first week alone.

"It might be a slight drop in output, or it could be slow Internet connections as bandwidth is sapped by employees watching streaming feeds of the games."

But, in the end, he says, these days, "a little distraction could be just what the doctor ordered."

How does Challenger generate its estimate of lost productivity?

Challenger takes projections on the number of Americans expected to enter a basketball pool -- 45 percent last year, in a Microsoft/MSN poll. That amounts to more than 58 million workers. Challenger multiplies that by average wages and workweeks -- $18.75 per hour, based on a 40-hour week -- found in federal data. It estimates workers will spend 20 minutes per day contemplating their brackets during the tournament's first week, the peak period of unproductivity.

How long has Challenger been doing this report?

This is the firm's seventh annual March Madness report, though Challenger didn't do one last year. "We ... felt it was inappropriate in the economic climate," spokesman Jim Pedderson said.

There was one remarkable case where Fidelity Investments fired four employees last year for playing fantasy sports in the office, citing a policy against gambling. Are employers concerned about this?

Relatively few are, it seems. Two-thirds of employers don't have policies that regulate office pools, fantasy sports leagues or gambling in the workplace, according to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Among the one-third of employers that reported having policies on workplace gambling, only 4 percent disciplined and 2 percent fired employees in the previous 12 months for not complying, the association said.

In another recent survey, by OfficeTeam, a staffing firm owned by Robert Half International, 48 percent of senior managers estimated that March Madness had no effect on morale, and 32 percent said it actually was a positive. Regarding productivity, 56 percent said March Madness had no impact, 17 percent said it had a positive impact and 17 percent said it had a negative impact.

"It brings out the team spirit, it brings out an opportunity to bond," Monty Sullivan, branch manager in Irving for Robert Half and OfficeTeam, said of the findings.

Is there any data on whether office pools are good or bad for morale?

In the human resources society's report, 55 percent of HR professionals said office pools have a "positive impact" on morale, and 42 percent said pools encourage teamwork. "Thirty-seven percent noted a negative impact on work productivity," the society said.

Eight percent of HR professionals in the survey reported an increase in employees calling in sick the day after a major televised event like the Super Bowl, and 11 percent reported an increase in employees coming in late.

What are the most popular office pools?

The Super Bowl (65 percent), NCAA basketball tournament (57 percent), lottery (31 percent), the society reports.

Some workplace experts recommend integrating March Madness and similar events into the culture. Are there any examples of this?

At OfficeTeam, managers use basketball vernacular -- "two-pointers, three-pointers" -- in their sales updates during March Madness, Sullivan says.

As rewards, employees are allowed to wear school colors on Fridays and decorate their offices and cubicles in school colors, Sullivan said.

As a sales group, "our organization is stressful enough," and such allowances build esprit de corps, Sullivan said.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808