More employers allowing some March Madness at work

Times Staff Writer

Brooke Pfautz knows that sales at his mortgage banking firm will probably plunge during the NCAA basketball tournament that begins Thursday.

But for the second year in a row, he plans to show the March Madness games on the office big-screen TVs and give a prize to the employee who picks the winning team.

"I want to have a good, fun, upbeat atmosphere," he said from his office in Hunt Valley, Md. "You spend more of your waking hours at work, so you might as well enjoy it."

His attitude is catching on. Recognizing that workers are toiling longer hours and seeking to accommodate the most talented producers, many employers are becoming more tolerant of employees who use work time for playtime or personal tasks.

Some employers are using the three-week NCAA tournament — one of the year's biggest workplace diversions — as an opportunity to boost morale. Others have launched office pools around major sports events such as March Madness and the Super Bowl instead of leaving that task to their employees.

Increasingly, bosses say they look the other way as employees peruse or book concert tickets so long as their work gets done and the company's computer system is not threatened. Some companies make office equipment, including computers, available for workers to use for personal tasks during their breaks. One public relations company allows workers to write their personal blogs during the day, convinced that the online journals will generate new clients.

These and other employers say that work time lost to Web surfing, e-mail and phone calls is a small price to pay for stronger office morale, less turnover and higher productivity.

Companies are becoming more flexible and tolerant "because you're not going to attract talent if you manage with an iron fist," said Brandi Britton, senior vice president of OfficeTeam, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based staffing company. "And talent is so hard to come by."

More employers also recognize that trying to stop workers from doing personal tasks during office hours is almost futile — and possibly counterproductive.

"We don't think it would be realistic to try to enforce a policy against personal use" of the company's computers, said Angela Genaro, human resources director for Aliso Viejo-based Merit Cos., a property management firm that allows workers to use company computers for personal matters during breaks.

"It is becoming more apparent that people need to get a few things done while they're at work," Genaro said, adding, "We don't have major abuse."

Many employees say the trade-off works for them too.

"More and people are saying, without apology, that if you are going to be reaching me at 8 p.m., [then] if it's 1 p.m. and I have to get something done that matters to me, I'm going to do it," said Peter Rose, a partner with marketing research firm Yankelovich Inc. in Los Angeles.

With 24/7 e-mail and Internet access fuzzing the line between home and office, employees are spending as much as 36 minutes a day, or three hours a week, checking their bank balances, arranging child care, watching TV and cyber-shopping from their desks, according to a survey last month from OfficeTeam.

Thirty percent of Americans say they use the Internet at work to take care of personal business, according to a Yankelovich survey last year. But with workers fudging, "the percentage is probably higher," Rose said.

Jean Washington, a legal secretary in a downtown L.A. law firm, says she makes doctors' appointments and e-mails friends and relatives from work when she has a few minutes. She's certain her attorney bosses do the same.

Some workers will spend as long as two hours a day tracking the NCAA tournament games, causing an estimated $1.2-billion loss of productivity nationwide, said John Challenger, president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

But Challenger believes bosses such as Pfautz, who indulge their employees' sports mania, are making a smart investment.

When employees had lifetime tenure, he said, co-workers came to know one another over time. Now employees change jobs more frequently and companies increasingly rely on consultants and independent contractors — factors that work against building the personal ties that make a company successful.

Employers need to take advantage of opportunities to create those relationships, Challenger said, "and here's a ready- made event.

"Why not embrace this event and use it?" he said.

In recent years, Pfautz watched as some of his 60 employees ducked out of the office to catch the basketball tourney action on the local bar's big-screen TV. They were "slow to return," he noticed.

Last year, he decided to make the tournament into an office event, ordering in pizza and tuning the four plasma televisions in the office to the games along with the conference room's projection screen. The winner of the office pool got a weekend trip to a nearby resort.

His employees, mostly young men, loved it, Pfautz said, and although sales still dropped during the tournament, his staff stayed in the office.

Other employers also use the tournament as a vehicle for building ties and morale. The Towson, Md., law firm Hodes, Pessin & Katz screens the games in the office and provides snacks. The firm office pool, featuring cash prizes, draws 70% of the firm's 100 employees and is more popular than the annual summer picnic, said partner Kevin Bress, who organizes the event.

"We kid about the fact that our retention rate remains high during March Madness because you have to be employed by the firm to collect the prize," he said.

"I get to meet some of the people I didn't know because they're suddenly in my office door giving me their selections."

Fusion Public Relations has gone beyond one-time events by encouraging some employees to blog, recognizing that they will probably write partly on company time.

Fusion spokeswoman Michelle Van Jura said bloggers had skills that helped the firm service its technology clients.

Account manager Tara Settembre blogs about movies she sees, her social life and the gym where she works out on When Tara Met Blog (Tarametblog .com). Fusion's website links to Settembre's blog and several others. Settembre said the blog, festooned with martini glasses, "gets my creative juices flowing" and is particularly helpful to clients interested in starting blogs.

"I can offer them an expert opinion," Settembre said.

But employers also say there are limits to their tolerance.

Six months ago, Bress said, his firm installed software to block Web shopping and gambling, concluding that employees were out of control.

"I would notice Lands' End boxes that were coming into the office," he recalled, and saw a number of workers Web surfing.

Pfautz estimates that some of his employees spend a quarter of their time during the day playing Fantasy Football online.

"The good news is that most of my employees are paid 100% on commission," he said, so the time they spend online affects them directly. But Pfautz is still annoyed, noting that if they spent more time originating mortgages, "they'd be a lot better off."

Employers also worry when Web-surfing employees visit sites that can damage company servers or steal data.

Hackers often target major sporting events, said Cas Purdy, spokesman for San Diego-based Websense Inc., which makes software that can block security threats.

A couple of days before the Super Bowl, a website visited by many Miami Dolphins fans had code on it that could steal data from other companies, Purdy said.

Another site launched around last year's World Cup soccer tournament also wreaked havoc with companies, he said.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times