Productivity Estimates Don't Stand up to Full-Court Fact-Checking Press

Ann All

We journalists tend to be a sucker for stories that we can sum up in cutesy headlines. So I guess it's unrealistic to expect much fact-checking for a news release from outplacement specialist Challenger, Gray & Christmas that links mass productivity losses during the month of March to workers using technology to check in on the NCAA basketball tourney.


Some of the resulting headlines: "During NCAA Tourney, Bet on a Loss in Productivity"; "Chore a Bore, What's the Score?"; and "March Madness Fouls Out With Bosses."


Still, a number of journalists are questioning the whopping $3.8 billion figure that Challenger, Gray & Christmas claims is lost during this month's tournament. Links to some of the best skeptical takes, from Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and Salon among other media outlets, are included in this Slate article.


One of the biggest points made by Slate writer Jack Shafer is that employees already spend a fair amount of time at work on time-wasting activities such as gossiping, making personal phone calls and taking extended lunches, a point that I made last January in blogging about a couple other studies that attempted to put numbers on lost productivity due to unsanctioned Web surfing.


The methodology seems iffy at best. Cobbling together an odd collection of statistics from Gallup, Hitwise and others, Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that 58 million workers will devote 13.5 minutes a day to following the tournament online for 16 business days. Based on the average American wage of $18 an hour, every 13.5 minutes costs $4.05.


Yet according to Nielsen/NetRatings, during the first week of last year's tournament -- a time when even casual fans tend to follow games to see how they are doing in office pools on the action -- only about 7.9 million people, or about 14 percent of this year's estimate, logged on to four of the biggest college-basketball Web sites. That's a pretty big difference. As Shafer mentions, the company also doesn't take into account the fact that most of games are played at night and on weekends, when few folks must break from work for a hoops fix. Not only that, but the much-publicized CBS Sports system that allows folks to watch streaming video of games online can only handle up to 200,000 PCs at a time.


It's worth noting that a growing number of workers can't give in to such productivity-draining temptations. As IT Business Edge blogger Susan Hall pointed out last week, their employers don't allow them to access video-sharing or live-streaming sites due to fears that use of such sites slows overall network performance.

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