Office pools. Sneaking off during lunch to catch a game at the local sports bar. Old college loyalties turning into water-cooler trash talk. It's March Madness, and it doesn't just cause fans to go crazy in the stands -- it infects America's workplaces and has become an inescapable fact of life for managers and employees every year.

Checking sports scores online is has long been an easy distraction. According to a survey by Salary.com and AOL.com, 44.7% of respondents said that surfing the Internet was their biggest workday time-waster -- by far the most common answer. With this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, however, that distraction will be worse than ever -- CBS Sports is broadcasting games online for free, putting live action just a few mouse-clicks away.

What will all this "madness" cost the nation's economy? As much as $3.8 billion in lost productivity, according to the loftiest of estimates. With workers tuning in more than ever during the day, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based employment firm, says that this year's tourney could be the costliest ever.

The firm estimates that workers will spend around 15 minutes each day checking scores and following college basketball news, meaning $237 million in lost wages for the country's 59 million estimated college basketball fans. Count that over the 16 days of the tournament, and the cost starts adding up. While economists say the figure may be on the high side -- given that employees have plenty of ways to distract themselves during the rest of the year -- it does point to March Madness' prominent place in office life.

In Durham, N.C., home of the Duke Blue Devils, basketball is something of a religion, and like many sports-crazed towns, the area can practically close down around tournament time. (Longtime rival North Carolina is just a few miles way, in Chapel Hill) Jeff White is a regional vice president for staffing firm PeopleLink, an Inc. 500 company with offices across the county. He moved to Durham 10 years ago from the Northeast, and was instantly swept up with basketball fever. "When I got down here, I was surprised by how overwhelming it is," White says. "They're basketball crazy." Clients will frequently call looking for tickets to big games -- especially during the NCAA tourney. On top of that, he'll likely be contacted about participating in five or six different pools. "It's freaking nuts," White says. "The fans are rabid."

The most controlling of bosses cringe at the thought of so much time being wasted during the workday. And at least some choose a disciplinary approach to on-the-job loafing. In one recent high-profile example, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg fired a city employee on the spot after noticing he was playing solitaire on his office computer.

However, as the NCAA Tournament has grown in popularity, captivating fans and non-fans alike, more and more employers have chosen to simply embrace it as a cost of doing business, rather than trying to clamp down and look like the proverbial bad guy. Managers, particularly at smaller, more informal companies, now use excitement surrounding the tournament as a way of fostering company spirit, so that employees will be more enthusiastic once life returns to normal.

Letting employees have a little fun come tournament time can be a big win for companies, according to management and human-resources experts. "When you see raw numbers about productivity loss, that seems to stop everybody in their tracks," says Diane Swanson, a management professor at Kansas State University. "But there are no readily available numbers on how good morale can offset low productivity'¦. It's hard to quantify productivity gains connected to how employees feel good about being at work."

Swanson says the tournament's "excitement creates bonds of solidarity that might not be there otherwise," and recommends that companies try to harness that positive energy, rather than trying to fight any productivity loss. Incorporating the tournament's fun into the office can improve employee morale and structure how employees pay attention to the games, turning a potential distraction into improved performance over the long run.

So, for managers, there may be better picks than Duke or UConn. Turning basketball fever into interdepartmental bonding -- rather than wasted time -- could be a slam dunk.