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March 6, 2014 12:18 PM EST

Predicting who will win the NCAA men’s division college basketball tournament can be tricky, but when March Madness kicks off in a couple of weeks, there’s one prediction that’s easy to make: You won’t be getting much work done.

“It’s the quintessential sporting event of this era, like the World Series of baseball was in the 50s and 60s,” says John Challenger, CEO of executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Since part of the 64-game tournament takes place during the workday, and because pretty much everyone has access to streaming video thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and high-speed Internet, that adds up to a lot of people paying attention to the games instead of their jobs.

The interesting thing is that bosses today don’t seem to mind. A survey by staffing service OfficeTeam finds that 27% of managers say the college basketball tournament has a positive impact on productivity, and about a third say it boosts morale.

What a difference a few years make: In 2010, OfficeTeam’s survey found that the number of bosses who said the games had a positive versus a negative impact on productivity were split evenly at 22% each. The number who view the tournament negatively today has fallen by half, to 11%, even though previous research shows that workers taking time while on the job to watch games, participate in pools or other activities cost American businesses $134 million in lost productivity last year.

“I don’t think [the $134 million] is going down. It is a distraction,” Challenger says (his company came up with that figure). “It does pull your attention away from your work, so the productivity drain in the short term — and that’s the key — is real.”

But this workflow disruption also big benefits, Challenger says. “The positive to it is that people today at companies are so isolated,” he says, working flex-time schedules, telecommuting, temping or working as independent contractors, that corporate culture is a fragmented shell of what it used to be.

“Companies are struggling to create workplace culture and bonds and relationships,” Challenger says, and it’s dawning on more of them that the annual basketball tournament might just be the ticket. The geographic spread of the NCAA Division One teams that participate means that even colleagues with diverse backgrounds have a local school they can root for, and the proliferation of office pools gives even non-basketball fans a taste of the competitive spirit.

“Many employees may be taking on heavier workloads, so non-monetary benefits such as March Madness activities can have an important role in keeping workers motivated in their positions right now,” says OfficeTeam executive director Robert Hosking.

People are working longer hours and expected to be “on call” at night, on weekends and during vacations, so while picking out brackets or watching a game might look like a distraction, today’s workers really need the break. “March Madness activities can offer workers a chance to recharge and return with renewed focus,” Hosking says.

Challenger says companies should view those millions of dollars in wasted time as a down payment on cultivating happier workers. “What they’re spending is more like an investment in creating employee engagement, trust and allowing people to develop relationships.”

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