Major events and their impact on productivity

Summer is here! The best of seasons, holding all the promise of warmth, sunshine, and time outdoors.

For sports fans, it’s doubly sweet: all of the biggest events happen at this time of year, and this summer we can look forward to two of the best, the European Football Championships and the Rio Olympics. Other treats include the Sri Lankan and Pakistan cricket tours; the Wimbledon tennis championships; three of the four golf majors; and summer rugby tours for all of the home nations.

These days, the only thing limiting the amount of sport we can consume is the number of hours in the day. The proliferation of mobile devices and Wi-Fi connectivity means that we can follow it anywhere; and vastly increased coverage means that almost every event is broadcast. During Euro 2012, European mobile internet traffic to sports-related sites increased by 215 per cent, and 8 per cent of UK fans watched games on a computer, smartphone or tablet. For the 2012 Olympics, audiences had up to 24 BBC streams to choose from, and on the busiest days, Olympic traffic on the BBC website exceeded that for the entire 2010 World Cup. Four years on, these numbers will surely increase further, probably quite dramatically.

Of course, there’s a problem here. These big tournaments last for weeks and the action happens every day. Rio is four hours behind London, so Olympic events will start late morning, and continue until the early hours of the following day. Euro 2016 games will take place in the afternoon and evening. Both competitions present workers with a very tempting distraction from the jobs they’re paid to do; and there’s so much of it, thanks to the non-stop supply of programmes providing highlights, predictions, analysis and so on.

According to some estimates, there’s an enormous price to be paid in terms of lost productivity. The 2010 and 2014 World Cups are supposed to have cost the UK economy over £4 billion each, and other big events aren’t far behind.

There are other potential costs, too. Organisations’ network bandwidth is rapidly consumed when employees stream high definition video to their desktops. This impacts those who are still doing their jobs, or worse, mission critical applications. The interest generated in major tournaments also presents a great opportunity for cyber-criminals to distribute malware or to mount effective phishing attacks. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, 42 per cent of IT professionals stated that popular events impact their network’s security and performance. Cybercrime has grown massively since then, and attacks have become increasingly sophisticated. This year, we can expect more hacking and phishing attempts than ever.

These factors present a pretty strong case for clamping down on employees’ viewing. However, there are some important counter-arguments. Firstly, the economic costs are almost certainly wildly exaggerated. There doesn’t appear to be any research basis for the figures: they’re obtained by guessing at the time an average worker spends following sport each day. Multiply that guess by the total working population, the number of days of the tournament and the average UK wage, and you have your cost. This might produce a striking number, but it isn’t very scientific.

Furthermore, the numbers assume that people work at a constant, unvarying rate and that all work is equally valuable. The reality, particularly in modern workplaces, is that tasks are complex, distractions are plentiful, and nobody behaves like a mindless automaton. Tasks can be prioritised, and deadlines and other pressures lead people to work harder at certain times. Meanwhile, conversations and shared experiences are an important release and vital in building relationships, whether with colleagues or with customers and suppliers. In fact, it’s likely that sport tends to replace other topics of conversation, rather than introducing new inefficiencies.

Getting involved in sports tournaments and other events makes many people happy, which has a positive effect on their work and their relationships. Even people with little interest in sport often tap into the excitement of the World Cup and the Olympics, and sharing that is a great way to build the team, or to foster relations between different teams and offices. Furthermore, making staff responsible for managing their own time and tasks is a fundamental aspect of flexible working, which studies link to higher productivity. Allowing staff to follow key games shows that you trust them. They will usually repay that trust by working harder to meet their objectives. It’s actually hard to think of a more cost-effective way of building togetherness and satisfaction, and by extension, improving productivity and staff retention.

By comparison, clamping down is likely to damage morale, loyalty and staff engagement. It probably won’t be particularly effective, either: in the US, NCAA college basketball coverage includes a “Boss Button”, which hides the webcast behind a fake spreadsheet. That button was hit 3.3 million times during the 2010 competition! Bans also contribute to absenteeism: research by Kronos found that 24 per cent of UK employees have called in sick to watch or attend a sporting event. This compares to 58 per cent in China, 48 per cent in India, but only 11 per cent in the USA and 1 per cent in France. These stats fly in the face of certain stereotypes, but they make sense if you consider the likelihood of staff being given flexibility and grown-up treatment.

Of course, some workplaces face greater restrictions than others when it comes to allowing employees the opportunity to watch the sport this summer. Nonetheless, to get the best out of your staff, we recommend following these suggestions as far as possible:

  • Don't ignore the event. Decide on policy, check it with HR, and ensure it is properly communicated ahead of the event, so that employees know what the expectations are. Be mindful of any precedents being set, both with regard to future competitions and for other, less obvious requests.
  • Where possible, allow employees to make adjustments to their day, on condition that they meet their targets. Adjustments could include working from home, flexible hours, or unpaid leave. Bear in mind that late night events could lead to staff coming to work tired or hungover, so consider allowing later starts as well. The important thing is that the work still gets done on time and to the right standard. If it is, there ought not to be a problem.
  • According to Goldman Sachs, big events can produce tangible effects: since 1966, developed countries that have won the World Cup have seen their stock markets outperform global indices by 9 per cent during the year of victory. Harness this energy and excitement by organising activities like fantasy team competitions, sweepstakes and social events.
  • Discourage individual video streaming and limit bandwidth usage by blocking media, sports and related sites. Instead, provide screens in communal areas, which allows people to watch collectively, but minimises distraction to others. Similarly, prevent cybercrime by monitoring website access and blocking where necessary.
  • Understand that those who are genuinely uninterested in sport may resent the ‘special treatment’ given to fans and followers. Make sure that they aren’t made to shoulder any additional work, and try to find alternative ways to reward them for their efforts.

Jack Bedell-Pearce, Managing Director, 4D

Image source: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia