At offices, work is benched

Some bosses bow to the inevitable and delight fans by ceding the afternoon to the NCAA tournament


In an office where the workday usually stretches well into the night, things went down a little differently yesterday.

At 3 p.m., staff at the Towson law firm Hodes, Ulman, Pessin & Katz set up pizzas, filled bowls with chips and gathered employees in two lounges where plasma TVs were tuned to - of all things - the NCAA basketball tournament.

Some workers couldn't tear themselves away from their desks, but for others, it was the end of the business week.

"No [basketball fans] would be working at this time of day, anyway," said Randy Lutz, sports fan and attorney.

"Rather than pack them into local bars, it's better to have them in the office."

The fact that basketball enthusiasts for the first time can catch the first 56 NCAA tournament games live over the Internet for free has led many employers to take pre-emptive action, but not in the ways that one might think.

Instead of blocking employees from accessing the games, some bosses across the Baltimore region are using the tournament as a motivational tool - a sort of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" concession that was compounded yesterday by the St. Patrick's Day holiday.

They're arranging free office pools, offering cash prizes and getaways, bringing in catered food and leaving televisions tuned to the games.

"Our office is predominantly male, young - the typical type person going out to [lunch to] watch the tournament," said D. Brooke Pfautz, president and chief executive of mortgage brokers Commonwealth Funding in Hunt Valley.

"They'll watch the games, have a couple of beers and be very slow to return, if at all. If we have something in the office, it kind of keeps them in-house, and therefore increases productivity as well."

Pfautz has taken the idea to an extreme, with a 10-foot TV projecting the games at all times and an office pool that offers more than the usual 50 bucks: Winners get a spa-weekend getaway.

"It gets the employees motivated," he said. "They look forward to coming to work."

Most companies welcoming the tournament at work said the social factor was a big influence in the decision.

Dana Stibolt, the president and owner of MacMedics , a Macintosh computer service and consulting firm, also created an office pool based on the tournament. He encourages his employees to keep an eye on scores throughout the day and to cheer on their teams by AOL Instant Messenger.

"It's a fun way to bring the company together since we have offices in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia," Stibolt explained in an e-mail.

"We have some people who work here who have not met the folks in other offices, so having the pool is a good way for people to get to know others they have not met yet," he said.

But not everyone's on board with the idea.

Even before the parties are accounted for, some economists estimate that more than a billion dollars in productivity will fall by the wayside during the tournament, as employees turn away from work and toward the games, particularly now that they're broadcast online through streaming video dubbed "March Madness On Demand."

In the first 24 hours the feed was available, more than 2 million people signed on, according to CBS SportsLine.

"An occasional disruption because of an unusual event ... is nothing to worry about," said Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and a former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission, an independent federal agency.

"But given the number of days involved [in the tournament], you're really talking about adding another holiday to the year," Morici said.

For Mike Rosenfeld, managing partner of WebConnection in Canton, participating in the tournament fever was a business decision.

His company created software used to manage some of the online pools covering the tournament, including the one used by radio station WIYY-FM - 98 rock - and one set up for his employees and clients, who've been accessing it from work.

"There's a business benefit to us more than the distraction piece, in my opinion," Rosenfeld said.

His office had plans to be host for a St. Patrick's Day happy hour yesterday afternoon, with a television, of course, tuned into the tournament by request.

At BreakAway Ltd. in Hunt Valley, President Deborah Tillet didn't have much choice but to embrace the tournament.

"We're a computer gaming company; it's a little different for us to try to legislate," she joked.

Her company held a basketball-themed potluck lunch Thursday, when the tournament kicked off, and yesterday, employees walked the halls wearing team shirts from their favorite schools and got in line to check out the streaming video of the games.

Tillet considers the live feed just another Internet distraction. "On any given day, it's something," she said.

But not every day offers the chance to bond over basketball.

"I'm rooting for everybody that works here to have a good time," Tillet said. "I'm the head cheerleader."

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