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Does March Madness make workers slackers?

The birds are starting to chirp, and the days are getting longer. It must be getting close to that time of year when you hunker down at your desk … and obsessively check on the status of your March Madness bracket.

If you’re like many of the millions of fans who follow college basketball this time of year, the question is not whether you’ll be spending time checking out the scores — or even the games themselves — but how much of your workday will go into the task.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas is predicting all the office and plant time spent following the games over the next several weeks could add up to more than $1.2 billion in lost productivity. The estimate is based on the assumption that 22.9 million workers — nearly 20 percent of the work force — will spend an average of 13.5 minutes a day following the games and updating their brackets (or tearing them up).

The figure actually is down sharply from last year, when the employment consulting firm predicted the nation would lose $3.8 billion in productivity. John Challenger, chief executive of the firm, said the figure dropped because the company refined its methodology to more accurately reflect how many working college basketball fans follow the games.

After a "play-in" game Tuesday, the NCAA tournament gets into full swing Thursday and runs through the Final Four and championship game April 2. CBS SportsLine will show the first 56 games free online, making the event even more accessible to office workers who may not have a television at their desk but do have high-speed Internet access. Many of the early games are played during the workday, rather than at night.

CBS SportsLine spokesman Alex Riethmiller said about 1.3 million people registered to watch the games online last year. Still, users only tended to view the streams for about 10 minutes each.

This year, about 300,000 people will be able to watch online simultaneously. When the capacity is filled, fans will be routed to a virtual waiting room until someone else stops watching.

The sports Web site does provide companies with instructions on how to prevent workers from accessing the site during the workday. However, the live site also features a “boss button” that automatically switches the computer screen to a bogus spreadsheet if someone happens to peer into your cubicle.

Although Challenger compiles the estimated productivity loss, he doesn’t actually see much wrong with letting people spend some of their workday checking out basketball scores.

In fact, he thinks companies should embrace the annual tournament by helping to organize events such as a company pool or team sweatshirt day. He also thinks employers should consider offering workers a flexible schedule so they can watch their favorite teams on their own time and then get back to work.

Such tactics, he notes, are better than having the most avid fans call in sick on important game days.

Challenger thinks bosses in general should be more permissive about allowing some personal time during the workday in part because companies increasingly are asking employees to do more work on personal time like weekends and vacations.

Also, in an era when workers tend to switch jobs frequently, he thinks it’s a good way to help employees come together.

“Rather than force it underground or make it somehow prohibited, it’s kind of like, ‘If you can’t beat 'em join 'em,’ ” he said. “Why not use it as a company to build that community, to build that trust?”

Others are more skeptical. Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette expert and author of “New Rules @ Work,” said she thinks letting workers take time during the workday to watch basketball could set a worrisome precedent if workers feel more freedom to do other personal tasks on the job.

While she wouldn’t quibble with a few minutes a day spent perusing the scores, she thinks companies should discourage anything more than that, or ask workers to watch the games on their breaks.

“It’s similar to any abuse of work time for personal issues,” she said. “A little of it can be OK, … but when it starts interfering with your productivity, then it matters.”

It’s not clear how many companies are concerned enough to actually block access. Challenger’s company surveyed 100 human resources executives, and only 6 percent of companies planned to do anything to keep workers from accessing March Madness Web sites.

Executives of aviation giant Boeing Co. won’t spend time worrying over whether its thousands of workers take some time out to check scores or compare brackets.

“I don’t believe that the company is concerned about any productivity loss due to March Madness,” spokesman Peter Conte said.

A spokeswoman for Google Inc. also said she doubted the search engine giant would be monitoring how much work time is lost to March Madness.

“It would be so un-Google-y,” spokeswoman Sunny Gettinger said.