NEW YORK -- While customers are watching the Super Bowl at Boston's Common Ground Bar and Grill, waiters and bartenders will pause to see key moments as well. General Manager Jeff John understands his staff wants to see if the New England Patriots can win their third NFL title in four years.
"Your first focus has to be the guest," John says. "But we all get caught in the moment from time to time."
Big sporting events are often a workplace distraction. But many small business owners and managers are cutting staffers a little slack as football fans find it hard to resist chatting about Sunday's game. The Winter Olympics, the NCAA basketball tournament and other big events are coming up, and staffers may want to tune in.
Some owners realize that trying to eliminate sports talk or forbidding staffers to watch games is demoralizing and also difficult to achieve. So as long as there isn't too much Monday morning quarterbacking or time spent in front of the office TV, bosses will go easy on fans. Some companies are even more understanding; it's OK there for staffers to watch games in break rooms, and some owners even run office pools without cash prizes.
John has noticed that when the games are most exciting, customers want to watch, not order. So if waiters want to pause and see the play, he doesn't stop them. Besides, when a waiter high-fives a customer after great play, it increases the bond between Common Ground and its diners.
A flexible attitude is a good management practice for company owners, says Philippe Weiss, an attorney with expertise in employment law at the firm Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.
"They're not going to be able to stop people's excitement," Weiss says. "Trying to do so in an unyielding or draconian way is going to backfire."
If the boss sees productivity slowing, or employees not tending to work that needs to be done, Weiss suggests a firm but friendly approach. For example, if there's too much watching of NCAA games, tell staffers, "It's time to do a fast break back to work."
David Niu doesn't worry about productivity at TINYpulse, his company that makes software to measure worker satisfaction and morale at other businesses. There's a TV that will show NCAA games in March and employees will be able to watch. But they'll also be held accountable for getting their work done.
"Instead of fighting it, I'm going to treat you as an adult," says Niu, whose Seattle-based company has 100 employees. He expects staffers to cluster in front of the TV during the last few minutes of some of the games - and he'll be there with them.
Watching TV during at work was once verboten. But many employers have come to realize a more employee-friendly work atmosphere benefits everyone; when staffers feel relaxed and are allowed to share a little fun, they're more productive and do better work.
Actualize Consulting used to have a policy about watching and discussing games that managing director Kerry Wekelo now calls rigid. The bosses would end conversations, and "that would burst people's bubbles when they were excited," Wekelo says.
The financial consulting firm with offices in New York and Reston, Virginia, has since changed its policy. If employees want to take a couple of hours to watch a game, they can, as long as they make up the time. The bosses also run an NCAA pool in which the winnings can be used for wellness purchases like gym memberships or treadmills.
Owners shouldn't run pools with pure cash prizes, which are illegal even though employees at many workplaces have them, Weiss says. If a boss runs a pool and staffers feel pressure to take part, it could be raised in a potential lawsuit against the company. Or workers who don't want to take part may resent the boss.
It's not so easy for people who work in a factory to watch games or spend time away from their work to chat. At Ratchet Straps USA, which makes straps to tie down items like tents or farm equipment, the headsets staffers use to communicate with one another in the warehouse have private channels, and owner Michael Russell is fine with them talking about the game or anything else while they work. He understands sports are important for many at his Belleville, Ohio, company, and they'll want to gather around the TV in the last 10 minutes of NCAA games.
"Watching the last couple of minutes is something that we definitely even encourage," Russell says.
Richard Lee is really the only big fan at his Los Angeles law firm, and is likely to be alone watching NCAA games on the conference room TV. He still runs a cashless pool for staffers. After the tournament, there's an awards luncheon and even non-participants are eligible for a last-place medal.
"This is a fun morale booster and break from what is often the dead-serious practice of law," Lee says.
Since it's pointless to try to ban sports fans from watching or talking, Ross Sapir, owner of Roadway Moving based in the New York City borough of the Bronx, doesn't even try.
"They don't have to do it on the sly, on their cellphones or watching it in the background of their computers," says Sapir, whose moving business has 40 staffers in its office, including many who want to watch the games on company TVs.
The big sporting event at his company is the World Cup soccer tournament, which runs from mid-June to mid-July. The games will be in Russia and many will be broadcast during working hours.
"I actually almost give them complete freedom to watch," Sapir says. "It's such a festive environment, you don't want to take it away from them."
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