Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Slack Your Way to the Top?

March 17th, 2006 | Paula Brantner

As we’re smack dab in the midst of the Season of Slack, otherwise known as March Madness or the NCAA Tournament, a new article conveniently appears saying slack may not be so bad after all. In fact, as one author puts it, “the notion that busyness is the essence of business can only do us long-term harm.” (See CNN Money.com article.) It’s a good article to share with all the bosses hoping to get some work done while everyone is obsessed with bracket-busters, their performance in the office pool, and whether their alma mater or favorite team will make it to the Final Four.

Whether you’re a sports fan or not, it’s hard not to get sucked into the drama of the NCAA Tournament, where over the next three weekends, sixty-four teams will be reduced to the Final Four, and ultimately, the national champion. On the first day alone, there were three upsets, with the most noteworthy that of Syracuse, who slayed some giants on its way to a Big East Tournament victory, but had no gas left to beat Texas A & M, winning its first Tournament appearance since 1980. (See Associated Press article.) There will be undoubtedly be more schools that no one but alums can identify geographically (where is Northwestern State, anyway? Who knew it was in Louisiana?) knocking off top-ranked teams, and other such stories captivating tournament watchers before it’s all over on April 3 in Indianapolis.

Every year, we hear what a major scourge to productivity the tournament is. This year, the tournament will cost the economy more than $3.8 billion in lost productivity, according to John Challenger, who frequently tracks such workplace trends. (See Washington Post article.) Companies have special reason to fear excessive slacking this year, as CBS Sportsline.com will feature live action streaming Web video, which will allow individuals to watch all of the opening weekend games (yes, even those taking place during the work day) online. The service comes complete with a “Boss Button,” which mutes the sound and switches the screen to a spreadsheet, so it looks like you’re working instead of watching basketball. Pretty clever, huh?

But how do you quantify the productivity gains and morale boosting that focusing on something other than work for a change can cause? Working longer and harder isn’t necessarily benefiting anyone, according to an increasing number of experts. For the U.S. economy to thrive, we need to be innovative and creative, and it’s difficult for that to happen when employees spend so much time multitasking and juggling that they don’t have time to think. (See CNN Money.com article.) As Wharton management professor Peter Capelli notes,

The physiological effects of tiredness are well-known. You can turn a smart
person into an idiot just by overworking him….On the organizational level,
what you get is, everyone is so focused on running flat-out to meet current
goals that the whole company is unable to step back and think.

It’s not to say that by focusing on the Tournament, workers are necessarily freeing up their brains for anything much other than basketball and more basketball. And Coach K’s reputation as a management guru notwithstanding, watching Duke (or any other team, for that matter) isn’t going to immediately boost your business acumen. But companies who worry less about their workers slacking off, and more about whether their workers have enough slack time to thrive, might just find themselves pleased with the results.

And speaking of being pleased with results, best of luck in your office pool! (This is of course not meant to encourage illegal gambling, no sirree.)

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