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How companies can manage employee 'cyberloafing' during March Madness

Thursday, March 09, 2017

LAWRENCE — In sports, few things beat the excitement of a Cinderella team pulling off a buzzer beater to defeat a huge favorite in the NCAA Tournament.

March Madness is even better when you can brag about doing well in the office pool when your co-workers are left with busted brackets.

The excitement can also bring challenges for businesses as one study estimates it can cost employers about $2.1 billion in annual lost productivity as workers spend time at work researching their brackets and streaming games online during the workday.

A University of Kansas researcher on organizational behavior and business ethics said the companies who are most successful with it find a balance between capturing the camaraderie surrounding March Madness and reminding employees to be responsible with company time.

"What workers don't always think about is that company time is money," said Niki den Nieuwenboer, assistant professor in the School of Business. "Typically, people enjoy working for companies that are hyper-focused on rule enforcement less than they do for companies that grant them occasional slack. I think that given there is a strong sports culture in this country, the companies that seem to handle March Madness the best tend to allow some amount of employee distraction. But at the same time, they are legitimate in reminding people that time at work costs money."

If people do spend time watching games at work without their employer's knowledge or consent, that is considered "cyberloafing," which is defined as using their companies' internet access during office hours for non-job-related purposes. Technically, that is a form of time theft, Den Nieuwenboer said. It has become more prevalent as people's daily lives have become more integrated with technology, she said, with online banking, shopping, social media and accessing news content.

Realistically, it often boils down to how much is too much at work.

"We do need to instill some sense of responsibility in people that they, in principle, shouldn't be spending all their time on the internet or watching games, because they are being paid," Den Nieuwenboer said. "At the same time, companies probably would do well to allow them to, for instance, get updates on scores every once in a while."

Salaried workers might also rationalize and justify their cyberloafing by thinking they will work extra hours either on the weekend or evening to make up for it, she said.

Some companies may try to mitigate cyberloafing by having games on in more public places, like a lobby area, so that people can maybe catch up with the game and see scores as they pass by for a few minutes.

"In such public spaces people would not likely spend hours watching games because that would be noticeable and probably embarrassing," she said.

Other companies might suggest employees use vacation time or take the afternoon off, if possible. And some do just seek to make a team-building effort out of it by letting everyone watch a game or perhaps not be too strict about an office pool, though reminding workers they shouldn't break any laws with a wager.

"It can be a bit of a bonding experience that way," Den Nieuwenboer said.  

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