Peter Ferguson

While watching the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship four years ago, NetTel Partners founder

Dan Ceravolo

came up with a friendly March Madness competition that would goose sales at his Philadelphia telemarketing company.

NetTel makes business-to-business sales calls on behalf of technology-company clients, so Mr. Ceravolo set up a system that awarded points for each successful sales appointment made. Total scores determined the order in which salespeople got to pick the best-ranked teams to seed their brackets (betting-pool diagrams that chart and predict who will win a tournament).

Although the overall winner of the competition won $300 and a personalized basketball jersey displayed in the office, the bigger winner was NetTel, which saw a 35% spike in the number of appointments set over the course of the three-week tournament that helped the company boost income.

“It’s one thing that you can do to make a tough job calling out more interesting—by providing a lot of different stimulators,” says Mr. Ceravolo. “Although they’re working at twice the speed, it’s not like we could push them this way for the entire year. But everybody enjoys the championship and it’s great for business.”

The first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament begins this week, and given how easy it is to live-stream games on company time, corporate managers worry about productivity loss.

But openly bringing March Madness into the office can be useful on many levels, say experts—especially since sports fans will try to sneak in time to watch the games even when they’re blocked or banned.

A recent survey by staffing firm OfficeTeam found that nearly a third of senior managers interviewed said workplace activities tied to March Madness had a positive impact on employee morale and productivity.

They suggest some guidelines, though. First, establish what is and isn’t acceptable. Will you allow betting or watching games over the Internet, for example? Many companies put TV sets where employees can enjoy game coverage while on breaks or after hours. Placing TV sets in public areas makes employees less apt to linger too long.

Issue guidelines well ahead of the event, at a staff meeting or by companywide memo, to avoid becoming the bad guy. “If you do this at the beginning before the event, it sets the stage well for the entire period, versus someone being disciplined part way through, where it becomes a negative instead of a positive experience,” says

Robert Hosking,

executive director at OfficeTeam’s Toronto office.

Mr. Hosking also recommends that employers offer specific suggestions on ways employees can show support for their teams. This can include dressing in team colors or decorating work areas. NetTel’s Mr. Ceravolo hangs team banners around the office to spur competition.

One major advantage to celebrating in the office with easy access to games, snacks and free lunches, for example, is that it can help keep employees from taking long lunch breaks at the local sports bar, where they may be tempted to drink and might not be in the best working shape afterward, says

Grant Greenberg,

director of communications for


RGU.LN -2.84%

Regus PLC

U.K.: London



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a multinational company that provides virtual offices for home-based businesses. Regus puts monitors in common areas of its offices during the tournament to promote networking among clients who might otherwise not interact.

For companies that decide to have a betting pool, it’s best to offer nonsports-related prizes such as gift certificates, something everybody in the office can enjoy in lieu of money exchanges. As a form of “social” or informal gambling, office betting pools are a misdemeanor in many states. Betting on amateur sports is illegal in all states except Nevada.

Various websites and app makers offer ways for employers to convert March Madness and similar events into productive sales competitions or teamwork exercises. Detroit-based LevelEleven makes an app that works through customer-relationship management software systems and offers real-time scorekeeping.

Die-hard basketball fans will inevitably take a day or two off, so it’s best to ask employees for advance notice of absences. That way, managers can reassign projects or bring in temporary workers as needed.

Rob May,

CEO of cloud-based startup Backupify, in Cambridge, Mass., just gives his employees a couple of days off during the tournament because he knows they’ll be distracted anyway. Plus, he says, making March Madness an official company holiday is a good recruiting tool.

“We’re in a high-tech industry and there’s a war for talent,” says Mr. May. “When people are researching a company and interviewing, you want to be memorable.”