March 18, 2013 at 8:54 AM ET
Here comes March Madness, when productivity will grind to a halt as employees tune in to the dozens of games played during working hours—at least that's the widely held belief. But is it true?
The reputation of the NCAA basketball tournament, which begins Tuesday and concludes April 8, is due in part to a well-known report put out annually by outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. This year, staffing company OfficeTeam has produced a report that casts doubt on Challenger's findings.
Challenger on Wednesday released its calculation of the output to be lost — at least $134 million — to workers watching the championship tournament, saying, "Employers should be readying themselves for the inevitable drop in productivity."
See Slideshow: Is March Madness So Bad? Comparing Productivity Killers
But OfficeTeam surveyed more than 1,000 managers about the effect of March Madness and found that just 8 percent of managers said it disrupted productivity. Twice as many said the effect on productivity was a positive one, while the vast majority of managers surveyed — 75 percent — said the games had no effect on productivity or morale.
Challenger Gray & Christmas has made light of its own study — last year's report said it "gives legitimate scientific studies a bad name." But if its methodology is simplistic, it is also straightforward.
Challenger takes the 2.2 million average daily viewership the tournament drew last year on NCAA March Madness Live, which is streamed free online for certain pay-TV viewers. Then it inflates the number to account for the growing use of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, and arrives at "at least 3 million viewers."
Then Challenger takes the average U.S. wage of $22.38 an hour and multiplies that by 3 million viewers and by two days — during the first two days many games occur during work hours — to arrive at "at least $134 million."
But yet another poll suggests the game-watching idleness may be even further reaching.
A survey by MSN and Impulse Research found that 66 percent of workers say they'll follow the games during work hours. Almost one-third say they'll spend at least three hours watching instead of working, and over half of those say they'll be fixated on the tournament for at least five hours.
Best Buy manager Dominic Hurley in College Park, Md., said he hasn't seen many people wandering in to watch recent big sporting events on his store's big-screen televisions, speculating, like Challenger, that these days many have mobile devices to view the games.
As for his own employees, he said he allows some latitude for workers who want to put the games on, "as long as the focus on customers is to a satisfactory level."
The network strain
Not all managers are as laid back. Other companies, concerned not only about slacking off but also the bandwidth strain that can result from streaming live video, are implementing plans and tools to monitor and limit viewing.
The network burden is a serious issue. A recent study by IT staffing firm Modis found that a third of IT professionals reported their networks had suffered shutdowns during the tournament in the past.
More than a third of U.S. businesses take action to prepare their networks for the increased traffic during March Madness, the report said, and some 30 percent of IT professionals said they are pulling all-nighters to get ready.
Ipswitch Network Management offers FlowMonitor, a software that can let IT departments know just who's streaming what and when — and even if you're on your own device, it's probably still on the company Wi-Fi.
Senior Product Manager Brian Jacobs counsels against putting the software to use in a draconian way. "People will just try to circumvent you," he said.
If managers respond instead by designating a break room as the place to watch, or setting allowable limits for streaming, he said, they may spare themselves a major network disruption.