All that time spent filling in brackets online, emailing the office pool, and sneaking peaks at the NCAA basketball tournament games on the Internet adds up.

So-called "March Madness" costs U.S. businesses an estimated $1.2 billion in lost productivity, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement consulting group based in Chicago, which conducts an annual survey.

The college men's basketball tournament, which started March 12, runs until the buzzer runs out on the championship game April 2. It's an annual distraction for office workers. But for their employers, including many small and mid-sized firms, it's a drain on resources – measured not only in employee time but in bandwidth usage, too. CBS, for the second year running, is offering live streams of all 56 games for the first three rounds in their entirety for free, plus highlights following all games.

A growing number of businesses are looking to curb such Internet usage by installing software filtering technology that block not only sports, but entertainment, video gaming, and porn sites. Another type of tool monitors the sites workers visit on company computers, logging reports that can help a company better manage its bandwidth, but employees might be put off if they're not told such filters are in use. No one wants to work for a boss who spies.

What's an employer to do

If last year is any indication, interest in watching the basketball games online will be high this year. Alex Reithmiller, spokesman for, says last year that 1.3 million people registered on the side for March Madness, netting over five million visits and 19 million video streams averaging 10 minutes a piece. Statistics like that make many a boss wonder how much time their staff spends at play.

Andrew Forsdick is one of those bosses. “We have Memphis fans, University of Tennessee fans, several who just like basketball," says Forsdick, president of Addison Capital Advisors, a Memphis, Tenn. based venture capital company that also provides incubator services for start-ups. “Frankly, I’m as big a culprit as anyone.”

But Forsdick wanted to keep an eye on employee surfing habits so he recently installed The Box, a hardware appliance made by Strategic Net Monitoring, which features proprietary software that tracks every website visited by every  employee. “If I have people from time to time checking their brackets, that’s one thing," he says. "They know The Box is now there. It’s a gentle reminder to keep it at an appropriate level.”

The Box is just one of many technology solutions on the market for companies wanting to the stop the madness this year. The types of products generally fall into two categories: monitoring and blocking, both can come in the form of software or hardware.

To monitor or block

Some employees may have good reason for unlimited internet access -- journalists, law enforcement, technology workers and human resource managers, to name a few. Monitoring solutions are a good way to curb inappropriate Web use through accountability after the fact, without the risk of inadvertently interfering with someone’s legitimate surfing.

Most manufacturers advise companies to disclose to employees that they're being monitored and to have a written Internet acceptable use policy so that workers know the rules. But some products have features that permit the boss to spy and that may come in handy if a worker is breaking the law or engaging in activities that jeopardize your business.

For employers who want to stop problems before they happen, blocking may be the way to go. Blocking is attractive for companies with limited bandwidth, especially sensitive network security issues or those that want to establish due diligence safeguards against inappropriate Internet use for liability reasons. Many a business has been burned by sexual harassment lawsuits filed by employees whose co-workers downloaded X-rated images or emailed dirty jokes.

Some features to consider

No two products are quite alike. Whether it’s blocking or monitoring or a combination therein (some solutions do both), business owners need to have a good idea of the exact features they need for their organization before they go shopping. Here are some features experts advise to consider:

  • Recording and screen grabs are a must-have if you think you’re going to need proof of misconduct. There are monitoring products that can log and record literally every key stroke, instant message, website visit and email sent.
  • Anonymous monitoring might be a feature that you may want to deploy if employees don't heed warnings. Some blocking solutions offer an unsuspicious 404 error screen for employers who want to block discreetly.
  • Scheduled black outs may permit employees to view certain types of sites – news, entertainment, or sports – at certain times of day, such as lunch time. In the case of March Madness, an employer may want to have sanctioned “viewing times” when it is okay to check in on games and update those brackets. Products like WebWatcher, by Awareness Technologies, offer the ability to schedule times when the blocker is off or on.
  • Email alerts can notify managers or the boss when a certain user is attempting to access an unauthorized website or trying to download a high-bandwidth music or video file in real time.

If you can't beat 'em

If March Madness is your only concern about employee Internet usage, you may be better off taking a more laid back approach. Many companies use high interest events like the basketball playoffs as an opportunity to rally the troops and boost morale through organized office pools with prizes or renting a big screen television for the break room for viewing breaks.

In the end, employers have to weigh the costs of making employees feel more at home with unfiltered Internet use in the office against potential drains on productivity, bandwidth, and other resources.