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March Madness: Office pools should be viewed as team building opportunity

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March Madness is in full swing. The 2014 NCAA Division I men's basketball championships brackets were announced Sunday and come Monday college hoops junkies will be formulating office pools in small and large companies across the country.

It is a common workplace theme come March, and while there are the typical office hoop heads who think they have picked the right 2014 Final Four teams - Duke, Wichita State, Wisconsin, Stephen F. Austin, Kansas, Florida, Arizona, Louisville and Michigan are among many teams sure to be picked for the 2014 Final Four in some office pools - it always seems to be those who don't take college basketball seriously during the regular season that pick the bracketbusters and shock the office pool. Maybe last year it was Betty in shipping who picked Florida Gulf Coast University to make it to the Sweet 16. Or perhaps it was Harry on the sales team - someone who prefers Dancing With the Stars over sports - who picked the Wichita State Shockers to shock its way to the Final Four.

Whatever it is, this should be viewed as a way to boost employee morale and as a team-building opportunity for employers who want to retain employees and prevent such a rigid workplace environment.

According to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an estimated 50 million Americans participate in March Madness office pools. Take into consideration a 2009 Microsoft survey that outlined that if each of those 50 million workers spends just one hour of work time filling in their brackets the cost to employers in terms of wages paid to unproductive workers would be $1.2 billion, based on average hourly earnings of $24.31 reported in the most recent employment report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (50,000,000 X $24.31 = $1,215,500,000).

John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says there are distractions every day at the office (or people wasting time on Facebook and Twitter), but the first week of the annual men’s college basketball tournament is definitely a time where workplace productivity lags.

"While March Madness distractions may not alter the nation’s quarterly GDP numbers, you can be assured that department managers and network administrators notice the effect on work output and company-wide Internet speeds," says Challenger.

The impact on productivity comes from numerous directions, said Challenger. Employees spend time talking about which teams did or didn't make the tournament, while other workers set up and manage office pools and then send out communication via company email, disrupting the workflow. Challenger points out how some employees will only take five to ten minutes to complete their brackets, while others spend hours researching every minute detail about the teams, cringing over every selection - taking up even more company time.

That'early in the week, then, it's game time.

"Thursday and Friday bring the actual games, which typically begin right in the middle of the work day for folks on the east coast," added Challenger. "Meanwhile, in California, where tournament coverage begins at 9 a.m., workers can spend the entire workday streaming games on their computer or mobile device.”

That being said, it's not all bad for those who would rather call in sick than miss Michigan State's opening round game. A new survey from OfficeTeam finds many employers may be willing to play ball. Nearly one-third (32 percent) of senior managers interviewed said activities tied to the college basketball playoffs boost employee morale, and more than one-quarter (27 percent) felt March Madness has a positive impact on worker productivity. These results are up from 20 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in a similar survey conducted in 2013.

"Many companies acknowledge the appeal of sporting events like March Madness and organize friendly contests or invite workers to watch games together," said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam. "Group activities like this can boost employee morale as workers have fun discussing game scores or their favorite schools.

In fact, according to a 2013 Accountemps survey, micromanaging bosses were one of main cause of poor employee morale. So why fret about a little less productivity for a few days over a month for the opportunity to perhaps increase employee morale, build relationships and help develop a team that may work better in the long run because they've got to know each other outside of all things work?

Challenger agreed.

“Employers may want to seek ways to use March Madness as a tool to increase employee engagement," he said. "Promoting a company-wide office pool that is free to enter, for example, could help boost camaraderie and encourage interaction among co-workers who may not typically cross paths.

Both Challenger and OfficeTeam offered tips to help boost employee morale during March Madness:

Relax dress codes: Allow workers to wear sweatshirts and t-shirts in support of their favorite team.

Catered lunch: Companies may be able to prevent unplanned absences related to March Madness by serving a catered lunch on the first two days of the tournament. Others may want to have a couple of televisions around the office showing games, which might keep some employees from streaming games at their desk, Challenger suggested.

Don't make a rookie mistake: Before participating in March Madness-related activities in the office, make sure you're not running afoul of company policies, says Hocking. Find out what's acceptable and what's not regarding issues such as breaks, personal Internet use and workspace decorations.

Watch the clock: If your employer allows it, take quick breaks to chat with coworkers about tournament updates, but don't let conversations distract you from your job. If you're a March Madness fanatic, consider requesting time off to watch the playoffs.

Check the playbook: Interested in taking a day off to enjoy the game? Discuss it with your boss in advance. This allows your manager to keep things on track by reassigning projects or bringing in temporary professionals, if necessary.

By the way, who are your 2014 NCAA Tournament Cinderella teams? Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Virginia might not be household picks, but don't be surprised when those teams make a run - and when Betty in shipping finds herself on the brink of another office pool championship.

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