Morale, productivity a necessary balance in March, experts say

Brian McCue gave serious thought to scheduling a vacation day last week. Not that he planned to go very far.

His adventure would have been limited TV remote range.

It’s that time of the year. “March Madness” is here, and McCue’s intention was to avoid the struggle between trying to focus on his job and trying to sneak an occasional glance at the marathon of games that are a part of the annual NCAA basketball tournament.

“You’re either at work, checking your bracket, or you’re taking these extended lunch breaks,” said McCue, a new business consultant at The List, a business development and sales company. The early rounds of the tournament “should be a national holiday.”

Until Congress declares such a holiday, the infiltration of the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament into the workplace represents the classic tension employers face between emphasizing productivity while attempting to maintain good employee morale and fostering camaraderie. Workers need to get the job done, but an employer who doesn’t allow personal activities every now and then during the work day could erode morale and eventually long-term productivity.

“If people are happy, they’re more productive,” said Joshua Pitts, an assistant professor of sport management and economics at Kennesaw State University. “Nobody wants to work for a boss who is ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ “

Experts say a line has to be drawn. More than a third of information technology executives surveyed by Jacksonville, Fla.-based IT staffing firm Modis said they took steps to block or interfere with employees streaming March Madness content. Other than productivity worries, they voiced concerns about a number of issues, including increased cybersecurity threats to a slowdown in the overall broadband network.

“More companies recognize that people are going to look (at the games or scores),” said Modis President Jack Cullen. “But some say, ‘There’s a job that’s going to be done today, and we can’t just be watching games.’”

An estimated 3 million workers watched between one and three hours of basketball at the end of last week, leading to $134 million in “lost wages,” according to Challenger Gray and Christmas’ annual tournament productivity survey, released the week before the tournament began. A small percentage of workers said they planned to take off or call in sick.

The tug-of-war companies face over balancing productivity and camaraderie isn’t limited to an annual basketball tournament. Workers who sit in front of computers all day have the opportunity to check their Facebook page, buy music from Amazon.com, download a TV show from Hulu, or play a game. Christmas parties, employee “farewell” gatherings and award ceremonies also pull away from what’s considered the traditional work day, even though they build a sense of team and boost morale.

“It gets right at real issues employers are dealing with,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based outplacement consulting company. “You have to make a choice whether to ignore it or take actions to limit its impact, or find ways to utilize it as a way to build morale and build deeper relationships.”

Despite potential money loss, Challenger says the cost is greater to ban employees from watching a big sports event or to insist that only work take place at work.

“Employers are just going to make their people angry,” he said.

To combat such problems, employers should have a clear policy on what’s expected of workers during the day. That policy should be reviewed with employees, said Katie Loehrke, editor of Employment Law Today, a newsletter for the compliance resource firm J.J. Keller &Associates.

Loehrke said as long as workers are meeting or exceeding what’s expected of them, then employers aren’t going to notice whether they are taking care of personal things during the workday.

“You can expect a certain level of productivity. And, if they aren’t able to balance that, that’s when you start addressing it as an issue,” Loehrke said. “Employees have personal lives, and employers who don’t recognize that are going to come off as looking pretty callous.”

Not all companies have a choice. Manufacturers, some retailers or companies that simply are struggling may have to take a serious “time is money” attitude to hit margins, make sales and keep the doors open. Those employers might have to insist that games be broadcast only in the break room.

Consumers who were watching the games on their smartphone or tablet were doing so courtesy of Atlanta-based Turner Sports, which now streams every game and provides a host of social media options, scores, stats and alerts to pay-TV subscribers from what’s called the NCAA March Madness Live operations center at Turner’s headquarters.

More than two-dozen workers monitor TV screens displaying either the basketball games as seen on the networks, or as consumers are viewing them on a smartphone or tablet. Other screens display Twitter feeds, maps, bar charts and graphs that indicate how many people are streaming the games and whether there are any glitches.

The offerings evolved from Turner Broadcasting System’s deal with the NCAA to broadcast all of the early round games on its networks. Executives say the amount of consumers watching the games on a mobile device has grown significantly each year.

“Consumers’ expectations for TV has changed,” said Matthew Hong, vice president and general manager, sports operations at Turner Sports. “They want to watch the games wherever they are, and they want ubiquity and a high-quality stream.”

At The List, McCue’s co-worker, Jared Smith, said the firm broadcasts the games in a separate room so employees can pop in and out to catch a glimpse in between making sales calls. As long as you’re still working the phone and hitting sales targets, then watching a little hoops is O.K., he said.

“We’ve got a work bracket going, too,” Smith said. “We’re in sales, so everybody’s competitive.”

Many office places are taking the stance that if they give employees the leeway to manage their work day, they’ll be responsible, said Cathy Missildine, president of Society for Human Resource Management-Atlanta and co-founder of Intellectual Capital Consulting.

“The ones that do that successfully typically don’t have other (productivity) issues,” Missildine said.

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March Madness in the workplace:

Amount in “lost wages” during first two days of tournament: $143 million

Percentage of workers following college basketball games during work hours: 66 percent

Percentage of workers spending three to four hours actually watching games during work hours: 14 percent

Percentage of workers who take time off during March Madness: 7 percent

Percentage of IT professionals who said their company will block or ban March Madness video streaming: 34 percent

Percentage of IT professionals who say their company blocks access to social networking sites: 68 percent

Percentage of companies that ask employees not to visit sports sites but don’t ban them: 23 percent

SOURCE: Challenger, Gray &Christmas’ annual March Madness Report Modis’ survey of IT departments

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&Copy;2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com

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