March Madness: Productivity Drain, Team Builder or Both?

With the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, aka March Madness, about to tip off next Tuesday, college athletes draining three-point shots on the court might be closely linked to a sudden productivity drain in the workplace. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad thing.

Survey data from Kimble Applications, a professional services automation provider in Boston, found that that 37 percent of 1,000 full-time U.S. employees polled say they have participated in fantasy sports competitions during work hours, while 13 percent felt “pressured to participate” in these activities even when they don’t want to. Another 43 percent say that they have watched sports over the past year during work hours while their manager thought they’d be doing other tasksa clear-cut productivity drain.

From the employees’ point of view, however, Kimble’s Business Playbook Report found 54 percent said that NCAA March Madness pools and fantasy competitions had a positive impact on company culture and engagement (just 4 percent say that there is a negative impact from sports-related activities). Among employees, there is also a split in opinion on how these sports-related activities influence employee productivity: 36 percent say that they are more productive while playing fantasy sports, but 22 percent believe it has a negative impact.

According to a recent Office Pulse survey by Captivate, a digital-media company, 24 percent of business professionals plan to watch March Madness during work hours. Most professionals (53 percent) say they will show some restraint while watching, spending only an hour or less a day checking out the games. Some workers, however, will go all in, as 12 percent report they will watch the tournament for three-plus hours a day. The estimated cost in lost productivity? $604 million.

The survey also found that some employers are pushing back, as 25 percent of professionals surveyed by Office Pulse say that their employer has either banned office pools or blocked access to streaming sites.

Kimble Co-founder Mark Robinson says that while this sports fandom may have a positive impact on overall workplace engagement and culture, survey results indicate that it could potentially have a negative influence on employee performance and productivity if not managed carefully.

“College basketball can be a whole lot of fun, making a great impact on your company’s culture, camaraderie and employee engagement,” Robinson says. “But it’s important for HR managers to keep a close eye on things to make sure the excitement doesn’t lead to negative issues among the workforce or start cutting into the office’s overall productivity.”

Robinson notes that employees are divided into teams and departments in most workplaces, and friendly competition around the games can encourage long-lasting, office-wide collaboration.

“To make sure it goes off without a hitch, I would recommend that HR leaders set expectations for what’s appropriate during the tournament,” he says. For example, acknowledge the fun and make it clear that it’s totally okay for employees to enjoy themselves and follow along, but also communicate straightforward guidelines.”

He adds that it’s critical that all employees know they are still expected to complete all of their assigned work, adding that it will also be important to ensure that no one feels pressured to participate.

“Not everyone cares about basketball, so make it clear that the activities are optional and that there is nothing wrong with sitting it out,” he says.

When possible, HR leaders should also consider organizing an office-wide event. This could be something simple like a lunch, or a Friday afternoon happy hour, to get together with colleagues and watch the games.

“Our research indicates that many employees will try and watch regardless, so it can’t hurt to get out ahead of it and turn the viewing experience into a positive team building activity,” he says.

Finally, Robinson says HR and mangers should encourage transparency. If you anticipate people mysteriously calling out sick on one of the days of the tournament, or the morning after the championship game, push employees to plan PTO days around a tournament or sporting event well in advance.

“That can help their internal teams plan ahead and remain as productive as possible,” he says.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at