You've got minutes until March Madness starts again this morning...do you know what your employees are doing? I can tell you--they're setting up their live streams, poring over their brackets, and sweating out the minutes until their alma mater takes the court. And after yesterday's round of nail biters, I'll bet a few people who never watched a game before might sneak a peek today. What your employees probably are NOT doing however, is putting their full, absolute concentration toward their work.

And you know what...that is OK. Here's what this article is NOT going to tell you: how to raise your office's productivity in the wake of March Madness.

March Madness, if you are one of the few in the U.S. and abroad who aren't familiar with it, is the annual college basketball tournament that tens of millions of people watch, according to Nielsen ratings. The tournament draws millions more online (52 million to be exact!). So with all this viewership, what's the fallout? It comes in the form of distraction, lack of concentration, and delayed follow-through on certain aspects of work.

March Madness and productivity has been widely studied:

  • Investor's Business Daily estimates productivity losses in the U.S. to equal $192 million!
  • Crain's Chicago Business estimates that 46 percent of workers have participated in office pools.
  • The Miami Herald reports that over $2.5 billion (that's billion with a B!) is spent on office pools alone each year.

Chances are, your employees were distracted on Thursday because of the opening day games, and they will probably be unproductive and distracted again on Friday. After all, streaming video allows us to watch during the day, at work. There's even the infamous "Boss Button" that turns the viewing screen into a detailed spreadsheet.

What does that mean for your workplace? For big projects and initiatives that need to get done? For workplace productivity? And how can you combat this steamroller of distraction?

My answer: Don't combat it--embrace it! The short-term losses in productivity will be more than made up in the long term if you foster an atmosphere of fun, competition, and collaboration.

Employee engagement, as a whole, has clear ramifications for success. According to HR Management, reporting on a study by Wharton professor Alex Edmans, employee engagement is good for the bottom line. They analyzed the financial performance of a portfolio of stocks selected by Fortune magazine as the "Best Companies to Work for in America" from 1998-2005. These stocks "earned average annual returns of 14 percent by the end of 2005, over double market return," they report.

I'm certainly not advocating that you should encourage employees to slack off or that you shouldn't continue to push your employees to be highly productive. But this is a clear instance of when an organization can look at the culture of its workplace and bring employees together in a unique way.

During this week, take a page from the employee engagement book instead of the productivity book; you might be surprised at how productive engaged employees can be. Here are a few examples of what our office is doing, and how these activities can make a big difference in the energy level of our organization:

  • Lunch viewing party and potluck. We embrace the fact that many of our employees love basketball. But by making it a lunch party, we make it about every employee.
  • Integrating March Madness with our products. We have tools that measure thinking and behavior...so we have brackets that match different ways of thinking about your picks (check out our blog on this strategy). What does your company do? Chances are, you can get your clients or employees thinking about your company differently by putting a fun spin on your products and solutions.
  • Office pool with a designated prize (in our case a really amazing 8-inch trophy with a spinning basketball). We don't put any money on it, but the bragging rights alone are worth a lot.
  • Worldwide online pool with our clients, friends of the company, and colleagues. We have offices in Singapore, the Netherlands, and throughout the world. They may not care about U.S. college basketball, but they love being a part of a global phenomenon.

Have fun with March Madness and know that productivity can't always be measured in clear ways. Engaging employees in new ways will pay off in the long run.

Published on: Mar 20, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.