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March Madness invades the office, distracting workers

In this Thursday, March 16, 2017 photo, Chris Nelson, right, Jessica Knight, second from right, Bobby Lester, third from right, Rick Miner, fourth from right, and Ted Wlazlowski watch the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on laptop computers from their office at FellowshipOne in Dallas.
Dave Nagel | AP
In this Thursday, March 16, 2017 photo, Chris Nelson, right, Jessica Knight, second from right, Bobby Lester, third from right, Rick Miner, fourth from right, and Ted Wlazlowski watch the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on laptop computers from their office at FellowshipOne in Dallas.

At Draper and Kramer, a mortgage brokerage in Chicago, the conference room isn't the hot gathering spot this month.

Rather, expect to find employees sharing victory and disappointment in the lobby, where they escape into a world where an ever-shrinking pool of college basketball stars battle for the NCAA championship on a 65-inch flat screen TV.

March Madness has invaded the workplace.

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"You wouldn't imagine how many people are taking little breaks,'' said Matt Hoffman, an assistant vice president. "If March Madness wasn't around right now, there'd be a lot more people doing a lot more work.''

Allonzo Trier #35 of the Arizona Wildcats attempts a shot past Quentin Goodin #3 of the Xavier Musketeers with 8.2 seconds remaining in the game during the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
Ezra Shaw | Getty Images
Allonzo Trier #35 of the Arizona Wildcats attempts a shot past Quentin Goodin #3 of the Xavier Musketeers with 8.2 seconds remaining in the game during the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

Across the U.S., workers may be focusing more on sports brackets than spread sheets as Americans fixate on the popular NCAA tournament known as March Madness.

But that's just the distraction of the moment. Add March Madness to a list that includes texting friends or relatives, poring over Facebook posts and tiptoeing off to take personal phone calls, all among the top time-wasters at work, according to a new survey by Seyfarth Shaw at Work, a subsidiary of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw.

In the poll of more than 400 managers and human resources specialists, March Madness ranked third among tech-related office distractions, behind texting and Facebook, as the top time waster. Some 30% of those surveyed said it was a "major'' diversion

Even when staffers are doing a work-related task on their computers "it's way too easy to open up another tab to your Facebook page, or to eBay, or to ESPN" to follow the latest game, says Ed Yost, human resources business partner, employee and management relations for the Society for Human Resource Management.

But right now, the nation is in the midst of March Madness. And every minute spent rooting for a team, tweaking a bracket, or trash talking a colleague is money drained from employers. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.predicts employers could collectively lose $2.1 billion for each hour of productivity squandered because American workers are transfixed by the basketball contest.

It's not just die-hard sports fans who are obsessed. "People who've never watched a single college basketball game during the season get ecstatic about March Madness because it's . . . .such a huge cultural event,'' says Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

With the American Gaming Association projecting that sports fans will wager $10.4 billion on this year's tournament -- a 13% leap over the $9.2 billion estimated to have been bet in 2016 -- excitement over March Madness may even slow the workflow of staffers who could care less about the competition.

"People are actually streaming those games live from their desk tops, laptops and smart phones, watching it every way possible, and dragging down Internet productivity for everyone else in the office,'' Challenger says.

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk #10, Frank Mason III #0, Dwight Coleby #22 and Josh Jackson #11 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrate defeating the Purdue Boilermakers 98-66 during the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
Ronald Martinez | Getty Images
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk #10, Frank Mason III #0, Dwight Coleby #22 and Josh Jackson #11 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrate defeating the Purdue Boilermakers 98-66 during the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

At Draper and Kramer, employees are nudged away from the big-screen TV and back to work with a promise from Hoffman that everyone can gather at the end of the day to recap the games. "We can . . . catch up on things and we can have a cocktail then,'' he tells colleagues. "That's how I get people to stay focused on work.''

Philippe Weiss, managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, says his firm offers talking points to clients to help them get employees back on track when they're spending too much time discussing jump shots and wagers. One example? "I appreciate your passion for the brackets. Now let's please apply some of that passion to the quarterly project."

Weiss also says managers can't make bets and bicker about brackets, then criticize employees for engaging in the same behavior.

" "If you engage in bracket banter, how do you have credibility stopping your employee from talking?,'' he says. "Managers have to be vigilant about signals they're sending.''

Finally, if you can't beat 'em, join em.' Clamping down too much on the thrill around March Madness can hurt morale. Challenger advises companies to consider using March Madness as a team builder. It's a way to "get people from different departments together, talking about something other than daily business items,'' he says. "Being able to root for their home team or alma mater is such a great way to bond people.''

Managers can take charge of the office pool, but instead of having employees pony up cash, office managers can offer prizes like a prime parking spot or ball cap with a company logo, Weiss says.

Managers may even want to extend the lunch hour so that workers have time to catch up on a game. Challenger says that his office will even call everyone to take an impromptu break and gather when a close game is getting down to the wire.

"Instead of everyone logging on and clogging the internet at their desktops, we encourage everyone to come into the break room and watch it'' he says.

After all, when work is always a text away, a little down time in the office is only fair.

"Employers expect employees to answer emails at 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. at night,'' Challenger says. "So the smart employers are saying we're taking some of your personal life and giving it back.''

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY.