March Madness leads a week of distractions

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 11, 2012 - 3:34 PM

It's a "mad" week for workplace diversions, but are they a boon or a bane for productivity?

OK, first off, it's Monday. We're bleary-eyed from that "spring forward" non-hour of sleep. We're itching to bound out of our cubicles and savor the suddenly balmy weather. And in St. Paul and other locales, we're concerned about how the kids are faring during spring break (lucky #*@&'s!).

In other words, we're just a wee bit distracted.

But by far this week's foremost inattention-grabber is March Madness. During the next three days, more than 40 million of us will be filling out NCAA men's basketball brackets, utilizing varying degrees of scrutiny, randomness and whims to predict the winners of 67 games. It's possible that some money will change hands.

On Thursday and Friday, we'll be sneaking peeks at the games themselves, which start at 11 a.m. and run throughout the afternoon.

Not a formula for a productive work week, eh?

Actually, some experts say that these diversions can be a positive force, even if employment consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas claimed that companies lost $1.7 billion in wasted time from employees watching opening-round basketball games in 2008.

Rachael Marret, president of the Campbell Mithun advertising agency, is a fan of this breed of fandom. "It's definitely a way to have employees connect with one another, create a buzz and an energy in the office. And that energy and buzz, it's put back into their work."

A half-century ago, school kids would surreptitiously listen to World Series games with a lone ear bud. Today's equivalent finds office workers utilizing a "boss button" that switches their screen from game action to a dummy spreadsheet when a supervisor is anywhere near their cubicle.

But is it really wasted time? Are today's somewhat preoccupied bracket fanatics, from the U.S. president on down, a detriment like the folks who show up hung over (if they show up at all) on another sports-influenced Monday, the day after the Super Bowl?

Not in a well-functioning workplace, said John Budd, chairman of the Department of Work and Organizations at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

"If organizations have hired the individuals they want and structured work in a meaningful way, then they shouldn't be worried about these distractions" Budd said via e-mail. "They should trust that the workers will get their work done, even if they take some time to fill out their NCAA brackets. Indeed, how many of them are connected to their work nearly 24/7 through smart phones and other technologies?

"If an organization has a true performance problem with this type of distraction, [it] should use this as an opportunity to question whether it can do more to structure work to be more fulfilling and ... manage performance problems directly by focusing on outcomes rather than by trying to observe inputs or distractions."

Actually this "mad" week could be even more diversion-laden, given that a certain holiday usually falls within it. But with St. Patrick's Day not arriving until Saturday, at least supervisors don't have to worry about employees coming back from lunch with reddish eyes and a green-beer mustache.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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