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The World Cup at Work: Tips for Execs

I'll admit it: I've got World Cup fever already. The quadrennial tournament kicks off on Friday, and I'm adrift in a sea of speculation with fellow soccer-minded colleagues. Who's going to play, who's injured, which country is likely to be crowned champions of the world on July 11.

What's any of that got to do with Executive Careers? Let me put it this way: the competition hasn't even kicked off yet and it's already proving to be a distraction from the working lives of a few of the people around me. (Not me, of course: a model employee, I keep my soccer-related chit-chat and web surfing strictly for breaks and post-work settings. Honest!)

The match ball for the opening World Cup fixture between South Africa and Mexico.
Getty Images
The match ball for the opening World Cup fixture between South Africa and Mexico.

The point here is that I'm based in an office in the U.S. And, while I grew up in a soccer-obsessed culture in Scotland, my country didn't even qualify for the World Cup. Most of my colleagues, meanwhile, are U.S.-born and don't believe the U.S. has a chance of winning (sorry!), but all of us will still be following every kick of every ball.

If that's the scenario in a country where soccer is a non-major sport, imagine what it'll be like in countries where it's akin to religion. And the effect that's going to have on productivity.

With all of that in mind, here are some tips for dealing with the tournament from a business perspective:

Check the schedule

Imagine if your team made it to the Super Bowl, and they held it in the middle of the day on a Thursday. Even if you went to work, you'd want to follow that game, right? That's essentially the scenario desk-bound fans around the world face between June 11 and July 11 this year.

The tournament is being held in South Africa, which poses obvious logistical challenges for fans not on the same continent. And—at least in the early stages—games take place seven days a week, meaning your overseas contacts, or even your colleagues, may well be surreptitiously (or openly) watching the big game at what might seem like a ridiculous hour.

So before calling a client in Brazil or a potential job lead in England you probably want to check to see if their team (or a major contender for the title) is playing. Because even if you get them on the phone, or into a meeting, you probably won't have their full attention. View the official Fifa schedule.

Cut employees some slack

It's an established fact by now that productivity dips during major sporting events that coincide with office hours. Whether it's March Madness, the opening rounds of a major golf tournament or a Grand Slam tennis event, people who follow the sport will likely have one eye—if not both of them—on the events. However, bear in mind that, while it does last for a month, the World Cup only happens once every four years. Because of that, even people with no interest in soccer whatsoever can find themselves turned into ardent fans for one month.

Sure, that email you need an answer to might not get dealt with as urgently as you're used to, but the good news is that soccer is usually a quick affair: 90 minutes for the game, plus a half-time break. Even games that drag on to extra time and penalty shootout eliminations only last two and a half hours.

And the trade-off between a little lost productivity versus the kind of lasting resentment that can be caused by cracking down on employees following their favorite teams doesn't require an advanced degree in psychology to figure out.

In fact, employers in some participating countries will actually go as far as setting up TVs so employees can watch the games at work. While that means they're accepting the loss of productivity, they're at least setting themselves up to reap a morale boost from it.

Follow the results

Sure, it might not be your favorite game, but there are a couple of good reasons to follow the results: first, the U.S. is participating, even if the team's chances of winning is slim. (Newsflash: of the 32 teams that have qualified, only four or five have a genuine chance of winning. And one of them needs to overcome Diego Maradona's haphazard management to do so.) And, second, it never hurts to be able to congratulate or commiserate with a contact from elsewhere as their team progresses or gets eliminated. Which leads us to:

If you can't beat them, join them

Especially if you'll be spending time abroad during the World Cup. It's going to be everywhere, so you may as well accept the reality. Who knows? You might even like it: there has to be some reason it's the world favorite game, right?

Oh…and while you're at it: Call it "football"

At least when you're talking to someone outside the US. That's how it's known almost everywhere else, and even if they know you call it "soccer," they'll appreciate the gesture.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com