The Games begin, and work stops

Apparently so many Los Angeles City Hall employees are streaming coverage of the Summer Olympics on their office computers that the city’s chief technology officer warned them that it was interfering with the entire city cyber system. He sent an email beseeching them to quit watching the Olympics online.

Although this will no doubt feed existing suspicions that city workers are lazy, unproductive and living large off of taxpayer largesse, the fact is they’re not the only ones watching. A reported 12% of Americans said in a recent survey that they planned to check in on the Olympics at work during the day as NBC streamed the events online, live from London. And those are just the ones who admitted to it. One digital media company estimated that $650 million of, well, something will be lost by American companies because their workers are watching the Olympics at some point for some amount of time during the work day. (And it’s not just an Olympics phenomenon. Last spring, the first two days of March Madness — the period of the wildly popular NCAA men’s basketball championship — cost businesses an estimated $175 million in lost productivity.)

These numbers, and even the assumptions behind them, are debatable, of course. Some experts say you can no longer equate productivity with mere hours logged in the office.

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Perhaps the more urgent problem at City Hall, and elsewhere in offices across the country, is the strain put on computer technology systems by the Olympic-size number of at-work viewers. Watching the streaming coverage taxes a computer system’s bandwidth and can make a network sluggish, affecting everyone on it — including the people actually doing work.

Given that much of the country may be doing the same thing, the cyber hooky at City Hall may not deserve the level of self-righteous outrage voiced by some City Council members. (“That’s not what the taxpayers are paying them to do,” said a shocked, shocked Councilman Dennis Zine.) But city employees are under increasing scrutiny at a moment of budget cutbacks and amid concern about runaway pension costs. As irresistible as it is to keep tabs in real time on the drama of the Olympics — did Michael Phelps just win a record number of medals? did the Fab Five U.S. women gymnasts nab team gold? — it probably would be prudent if city workers did most of their Olympics watching after work, at home.

And for goodness’ sake, if you’re going to check the medal tally online, do it quickly.