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Business Productivity Destroyed By March Madness?

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As we enter another season of college basketball excitement, the same question is asked to business consultants everywhere: Does March Madness destroy business productivity?

The answer that most people seem to offer is a resounding “yes.” According to a piece in the Los Angeles Times:

In its annual poll, the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. estimates that the almost monthlong tournament will cost American companies $134 million in “lost wages” as an estimated 3 million workers spend between one to three hours watching hoops.

Employers: Brace yourself for slower Internet speeds as online streaming is expected to zap networks’ bandwidth, the firm warns.

Business Consulting - Lost Productivity Due to March Madness?

© Flickr user JMR_Photography

Of course, those figures come from a business consulting firm so they might be a little suspect. In fact, a Forbes article says they that the problem is real, but not that serious:

..a new report by staffing service OfficeTeam, makes it seem as though the March Madness productivity problem is overstated.

The OfficeTeam report is based on responses from over one-thousand senior executives at mid-to-large sized companies, along with replies from more than four-hundred workers employed in office environments. It found that only one-in-five employees are distracted at work by the inherent excitement that forms from watching major sports competitions. Further, eleven percent (11%) of the executives polled said they find March Madness activities to be a welcome diversion, and a whopping fifty-seven percent (57%) of them admitted that while they do not encourage March Madness activities in the workplace, they find said activities to be “OK” in moderation.

An inherent flaw in that argument is that it discounts the ability of workers to perform at their jobs while following the games and assumes that people must choose to do one or the other. Further, many workers will put in extra time at their jobs in the beginning or end of the workday to compensate for any production that may be lost listening to a buzzer beater call.

Business Productivity and March Madness

© Flickr user Abhinav Mishra

What about an actual study that analyzes the work completed? Charles Clotfelter, a professor at Duke University, did some research and reported this for the Harvard Business Review:

…I wanted to see if I could find evidence that goes beyond anecdotes and back-of-the-envelope estimates. Through my research, I came up with clear evidence of the NCAA tournament’s effect on patterns of work. Whether it’s a serious problem is another question.

To track the amount of work done, I obtained data on the number of academic journal articles viewed (through a web-based repository called JSTOR) by faculty and students in 75 university libraries across the country.

In each of the three years I observed, the daily number of articles that users looked at [the first week of March Madness] dropped about 6 percent. This decline started on Monday and lasted the entire week.

Big-time college sports leaves a giant footprint, and the influence of March Madness on patterns of work is just one example. But American productivity probably isn’t affected too much, no more than it is by, say, Thanksgiving. People have fun, but most of them find a way to get their work done.

All of these reports cover the metrics of work output, but they don’t cover the essential question of employee input.

If employees who were college basketball fans were really less productive for one month each year, wouldn’t we ask that in the interview?

Maybe what really matters is whether workers are motivated to be productive. Then temporary distractions would not be so important; but rather our confidence in their ability to get things done.

After all, the biggest college basketball fans of all are probably the players, coaches, and supporting staff themselves. Who worries about them skipping out on practice to watch a game?

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