Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Distractions

March Madness basketball games could improve your office relationships

The NCAA basketball tournament is here and offices everywhere are in the midst of the madness.

Workplaces are embracing March Madness with office pools, brackets and friendly competition. (Friendly, that is, towards every team but the widely loathed Duke University team, which is frequently dominant but was knocked out early this year amid much schadenfreude).

A survey from Bloomberg even found that out of 1,200 adults, close to three-quarters of them said that a March Madness pool made them look forward to coming to work.Ball State marketing professor Ben Wright says that the tournament is an “opportunity to boost morale and forge a more cohesive workplace.”

Bonding over March Madness is fun— as long as you’re not a Duke fan

I was fortunate enough to work at offices that not only recognized March Madness as a special occasion, but encouraged employees to participate in all the aspects of tournament, from creating brackets to watching the games. I honestly looked forward to coming into the office knowing that the companies I worked for openly celebrated tournament time.

It made it much easier that I worked for a sports publication, Bleacher Report. I recall meeting a new hire while we were watching a Duke game together in the office. He mentioned that he went to North Carolina and we both admitted that we chose the Duke Blue Devils to lose early in the tournament due to our shared disdain for the team.

I forged relationships with my colleagues and made new friends that I still keep in contact with to this day thanks to Bleacher Report’s initiative to incorporate March Madness into the workday.

Why March Madness can bring colleagues together

There are a few dovetailing reasons that March Madness is the best opportunity for office bonding all year: it’s the unique combination of competition, nostalgia and unpredictability that’s unrivaled by any other social phenomenon.

First and foremost, college basketball is innocent compared to the aggressiveness of pro sports, offering sweeter narratives of young players overcoming barriers.

Second, anyone can fill out a bracket to guess the winners even if he or she is not a fan. Unlike pro sports, college basketball is highly unpredictable. Every year, a surprise upset ruins even the best brackets, so the stakes are low.

Third, the NCAA college basketball championships give more people a chance to feel included, since every part of the country is represented because of the regional design. Even better, every year a few small, scrappy schools make it in, which gives you a chance to root for the underdogs. 

Fourth, March Madness games are often played during office hours, which can produce the illicit thrill of secret viewing among fans.

And finally, March Madness is short enough to sustain interest with a lot of thrills, but long enough to keep conversations going. The Super Bowl or Oscars are conversation-worthy for a day or two afterwards, but March Madness keeps the surprises coming for weeks. 

March Madness fills the hole left by disappearing communal events

Let’s get one thing out of the way: the modern workplace is severely lacking in bonding opportunities. Open offices have created a backlash marked by widespread use of headphones and escapes to remote cubicles to work in peace. Office watercoolers don’t exist any more, and “event viewing” has largely been replaced by Netflixian binge watching at our own pace.

Add to that the constant change in employees at many offices, as shorter gigs and job-hopping, as well as remote work, all take root. New employees are hired and old colleagues depart for other opportunities.  Establishing a relationship with a new coworker that you hardly interact with can be difficult, but March Madness can help with that awkwardness.

Cheering for anything — whether it’s sports or awards shows —  helps to build connections and spark conversations. According to Harvard Business Review, close friendships at work boost employee satisfaction by 50%. Partaking in an unpredictable, unique experience like March Madness brings colleagues together around a singular event and can help to reaffirm a group’s potential to rally around a common goal.

Coworkers who normally wouldn’t talk to each other may feel looser once there’s cheering involved, and rivals may find some common ground. (Except, again, in the case of Duke, the alums of which should be ready for all kinds of smacktalk). March Madness can frequently bring up memories of college and college sports teams, which can be a window into a special time from one’s past. The tournament rekindles past rivalries but instead of a stadium, the venue is now the office.

How to play March Madness in the office

  • Know the lingo: If you’re not a college basketball fan, it’s easy to be one. (The rules are similar to professional basketball: get the ball in the basket.) March Madness is the casual name for the tournament (conveniently, mostly during March) that decides which college basketball team is the best in the country. There are four regions: East, West, Midwest and South. Each region sends its best teams to the Sweet 16, the semifinal portion of the tournament. The winners of the Sweet 16 go on to the Elite 8, which are the finals of the regional portion. The Elite 8 narrow down to the Final Four, which kicks off the national portion of the tournament. The two winners of the Final Four face off in the national championship.
  • Fill out a bracket: Brackets are available everywhere online: from the NCAA and from ESPN, to start. For anyone who wants to start an office pool, Yahoo Sports is a popular option that helps create and score brackets digitally so everyone can check in any time to see how their picks are shaping up.

Ultimately, celebrating March Madness really isn’t about basketball. It’s about camaraderie. If you can find even one other person to watch it with you, the madness of it all makes it best time of year in the workplace.