CHICAGO — Watching March Madness at the office has often meant furtive glances at your smartphone, obscuring the game on your computer screen or sneaking off to a bar TV in the middle of the afternoon to avoid detection.
Now it’s game on for work-from-home employees everywhere, who can watch the three-week tournament with impunity, far from the prying eyes of their bosses.
One year after its cancellation marked the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, March Madness is back, offering bracket pools, Cinderella teams and 67 televised games/excuses for putting off your work. But the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which tipped off Thursday, will be different, and not just because the University of Illinois is a No. 1 seed and among the favorites to win it all.
All of the games will be played in an Indiana bubble, many just a Bobby Knight chair throw apart. Teams will be placed in brackets based on rankings, not geography. And work-from-home employees will be able to watch it all unfold in real-time on live television.
“There’s going to be a higher participation from people working at home because they can have the TV going on all day,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Each year, companies grapple with how to navigate March Madness, when millions of employees across the country enter office pools, sneak peeks at the games, and pretend to look busy when their boss ambles by, looking for an overdue report.
An average of 10.5 million viewers tuned into each game during the 2019 tournament, according to Nielsen. Challenger projects 72 million employees will be watching March Madness this year, costing companies $13.8 billion in lost productivity.
With nearly 60% of employees continuing to work remotely, according to a Gallup survey released Wednesday, companies will have no way of measuring the level of real-time hoops distraction. But binge watchers be warned: Companies have upped their game during the pandemic at analyzing worker productivity, Challenger said.
“Many companies don’t have a way to monitor, necessarily, hour-by-hour productivity,” Challenger said. “But they’ve developed systems over the course of the last year to check that people are doing their work, that they’re getting the deliverables done.”
While office pools may be a little harder to coordinate in the work-from-home paradigm, another distraction that didn’t exist in 2019 is the ability to bet legally on March Madness games in Illinois.
Last year was supposed to be the dawn of legal sports betting with March Madness in Illinois. Rivers Casino in Des Plaines opened the state’s first sportsbook on March 9, 2020 — one week before the tournament was scheduled to begin.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with statewide stay-at-home orders, mounting infections and the abrupt cancellation of March Madness, the first sign for many of the massive disruption to come. All bets were off until online sports wagering began in June, and in-person sportsbooks reopened in July.
Sports betting has since picked up steam, with nearly $582 million wagered at eight Illinois sportsbooks in January, including 99% of it bet online through mobile apps, according to the latest full-month data from the Illinois Gaming Board.
In February, Illinois sports bettors wagered nearly $46 million on the Super Bowl, according to the gaming board. Industry analysts believe the three weeks of March Madness will push Illinois to a new monthly sports betting record.
With all that money on the line, employees may be paying even closer attention to the games, with all 67 televised live across CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV. The first four qualifying games began Thursday afternoon, with a full schedule of first-round action scheduled for Friday.
In recent years, more companies have embraced the madness, putting the games on big screen TVs, holding office parties and encouraging employees to participate as a way to boost morale.
Fifth Third Bank inherited a tradition from MB Financial when it purchased the Chicago-based bank in March 2019 of hosting first-round events for business customers at several downtown and suburban locations.
Canceled last year during the pandemic, those events are set to resume under the Fifth Third banner in 2022, bank spokesman Larry Magnesen said.
About half of the bank’s 3,000 Chicago-area employees continue to work remotely, Magnesen said. As to watching the games while working from home, there has been “no formal communication” from leadership on the subject, he said.
“We have placed a lot of trust in our associates this year,” Magnesen said. “Many have worked from home and managed through the challenges associated with child care and other issues. The bank has performed well throughout that time.”
Accenture, which is expanding its West Loop office and consolidating its Chicago workforce at the renamed Accenture Tower, remains in a hybrid mode, with 90% of its 11,000 Midwest employees working remotely, said Lee Moore, head of the consulting firm’s Midwest region.
Employees are “empowered to work flexibly,” so they are free to watch March Madness — as long as they get their work done, Moore said.
“March Madness is a fun way to bring us together, even now, as we’re working remotely,” Moore said. “As for me, Tour de France is more my speed, but I welcome our people to watch the action.”
While viewers may be scattered during this year’s tournament, communal slacking off during the return of March Madness may provide much-needed bonding for pandemic-weary employees, something that may prove far more valuable than any lost productivity, Challenger said.
“It feels like it’s bookmarking the pandemic,” Challenger said. “The fact that it is back is a signal of normalcy, that we’re headed back towards what life used to be like. I think it holds more importance maybe than it ever has for the average American.”