In the list of sure signs of spring, March Madness stands tall alongside fellow harbingers such as daylight-savings time and blooming flowers. And when employees harness that optimism by breaking out the brackets in a couple of weeks, it looks like they won't face a particularly tough defense from their employers.

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, 81 percent of employers say they do not have a policy regulating office pools like those that come with the NCAA tournament. That data was collected during last year's tournament and marks a big shift from 2010, when that figure stood at 67 percent. (Of the companies that do have policies, only 7 percent claim to have ever disciplined an employee.)

What's more, HR professionals are in agreement that office pools actually have a positive workplace effect. About 70 percent say they play a positive role in relationship building at their companies, 64 percent say they help with team building, and 54 percent said they even increase employee engagement.

Relationship building and teamwork, sure. Employees huddled around, keeping track of scores, talking about something other than work--it's not hard to see how March Madness could ultimately help build these connections.

Some companies even go out of their way to leverage the tournament for relationship building, such as by putting employees into teams that collectively fill out a bracket and compete against other teams' brackets across the company.

But engagement? Shouldn't the tournament serve to hurt engagement, with its potential for distraction and thus lost productivity? Well, maybe. Some studies have shown the tournament might come at the expense of U.S. employers. Another survey says that 62 percent of employers think March Madness has no effect on employee output, and 27 percent even think it boosts productivity.

Whatever the effect of office pools on employees, the focus on productivity belies the discussion at hand. Productivity is an end, not the means, by which we define engagement.

The actual recipe for engagement is a lot more muddled than that. But at some level, we know it comes down to how much employees like their jobs and their co-workers. And suffice it to say that employees tend to like the jobs that treat them like they're adults, and that facilitate those connections with colleagues.

So though you might notice a small downtick in productivity during the Madness, consider your laissez-faire approach to office pools an investment in creating the kind of longer-term engagement that will more than make up for it down the road.