Man watching football at desk

When football comes first

At the very least the World Cup is going to create a major distraction for your work force - precious time and resources will be wasted on what's after all only a game. But as managers what should we make of all this?

Let's start with a confession: this article is probably going to arrive a day late on my features editor's desk. I will tell him this was due to work-related stress, people not getting back in touch with me when I needed a comment and my grandmother biting the hamster, which then needed taking to the vet urgently.

Between you and me, what actually happened was at the time I'd scheduled to write this stuff, Gordon Brown resigned as the UK's Prime Minister. Two days running. There was a hung Parliament, there was an alliance with the Liberals and Conservatives, then Labour was talking to them, then they weren't - concentrating on anything else was more or less impossible for someone who considers themselves interested in the news, as journalists tend to.

Putting that in writing was a really, really bad idea. [You're fired 'Ed]

Nonetheless, it's relevant because it was a distraction from the real world into my working life (which I don't consider part of the real world at all, although I do like the way it makes money arrive). And my brief today is to write about how to get your employees working while the World Cup is taking place. If you thought new Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg's 'You May Now Kiss The Bride' moment in the Downing Street garden was a distraction, you just wait for the footie to kick off.

There's a serious technological side to this. [Keep talking 'Ed] Chris Stening, managing director of Easynet Connect, warns of possible network issues. 'There will be an enormous amount of people wanting to be online at the same time,' he says. 'The potential effect would be to slow networks down considerably.'

A bit of a sluggish network might not sound so bad at first, but consider the amount of organisations moving to cloud computing for their applications and data. They log on for their customer relationship management, their enterprise resource planning and their mail, and the whole thing grinds to a halt. 'Don't forget also we have a whole lot of employees from 'generation Y' - whose instinct is to use the computer to get at all of this stuff, so not only will they watch it online, they'll Instant Message each other about it, Tweet about it and so forth.'

This effect gets magnified when you consider home workers, who will be using consumer-grade Internet, he believes. If a match starts around 4pm, and many of them will, that's just when the school kids will get back from home and the Net starts to slow down because of contention on domestic Internet connections.

It's important not to underestimate just how many people anticipate using their technology at work to monitor what's happening during the tournament. Another ISP, Eclipse Internet, conducted a survey that suggests 54 per cent of Britons will want to log on and watch the games while they're at work. This was from a sample of 2,000 people all of whom were of working age, but even if we sanity-check and realign the research so it reflects 54 per cent of the working population rather than the entire population, it's still substantial.

How are England doing?

An issue that underpins the Eclipse figures is that 58 per cent of people had given no thought to the impact the matches would have on the office network and 56 per cent had no idea whether there were any restrictions, automated or otherwise, on watching the football over the office wires. A quarter saw no reason why watching should have any effect on work applications if everybody tuned in during a match, and 37 per cent thought watching the football would have no effect on their work productivity, which is either a comment on their usual productivity or a gross underestimation of how absorbed people become in sport. The key is to be prepared. Stening, as the managing director of a business Internet Service Provider, is clearly ready for what the technology has to throw at him. The employees and their working practices will be another issue, and one that he accepts with equanimity.

'I would expect a proportion of employees to want to watch the matches and I'll want to be sensitive to that,' he says. 'We'll want to be as flexible as possible - a lot of the matches seem to be in the evening or the afternoon.'

In fact the big match taking place during working hours for England fans is England vs Slovenia at 3pm on 23 June - expect a lot of mystery colds, hay fever and other excuses at that point. He adds that, since Easynet Direct is owned by Sky, people could always record the match on Sky+ and watch them later. Fortunately he doesn't sound entirely serious when he says it.

Robert May, managing director of IT consultancy Ramsac, anticipates difficulties because of the obsessive nature of football fans. Even if they're physically present in the office when a match is on, their minds might well be elsewhere - and they need to be allowed some sort of freedom.

'Whilst the recovering economy dictates that small businesses need, if you'll pardon the pun, to keep their eye on the ball, employee satisfaction is an important part of creating and maintaining a well-motivated and committed team - the key to any successful enterprise.'

That was never offside!

As an IT man it comes as no surprise to note he has a technological suggestion to get around the problem. 'We are living in an age where remote or home working is a realistic and often beneficial facet of modern business, and this gives a much greater ability to find a solution that can suit everyone,' he says.

'Many IT systems with remote access can provide the home worker with the same level of systems access that is available in the office environment. However, most office-based server systems can offer staff members some level of remote access, even if it is Web-based access to the company email.'

He believes that unified communications will get a lot of people around the need to be at a physical desk the whole time (which he'd naturally advocate as someone who can help with them) - but the central problem of paying attention to the business while a major sporting event is happening isn't going to go away.

'For some companies, business drivers mean that rigid working hours will need to be maintained, especially for client-facing employees. In these situations it may be advisable to block football or related websites, either permanently, throughout the tournament or during certain working hours, to discourage employee distractions,' he says. 'This is a straightforward procedure for your in-house or outsourced IT support team to administer and can be revoked later if appropriate.

'If you decide it is appropriate, making sure that employees can function just as well away from the main company premises; technology means that businesses can now offer levels of flexibility that just weren't realistic in the past. Whilst remote working won't stop football-mad employees wanting to check the latest score or watch key games, it does mean that working hours can be juggled where possible and productivity maintained when traditionally it may have suffered.'

The major issue May touches, almost without realising it, is whether someone is the sort of manager who actually wants to stop their colleagues watching the matches. Not everybody is going to feel that way. Some people take the view, very firmly, that they employ adults who'll get the job done without being mollycoddled or having artificial blocks put in the way of lazing around.

Aaron Ross is chief executive of FirstCare, a consultancy that offers absence management to UK business. He is ensuring there are TVs in the office to allow people to watch without overloading the network and he's dotting wall charts around the building so people can follow their team's progress.

'Sky HD has got an advertising campaign on at the moment that says we'll lose three million working days due to the Cup, and that sort of information is damaging,' he says. 'If people go into this expecting massive absenteeism then they'll get it and we'll do some damage to the economy just when we don't need it.'

It's better, he suggests, to engage with this and any other sporting event, work out the likely outcomes and engage with them so that people will come in and do the job they're paid to do. There will be two sorts of absence, he anticipates: first the one that happens during a match and this doesn't just mean an England match: 'We have a diverse workplace so it would be naive to limit this to one country's matches,' he says.

The second is the morning after an evening match, when people will have been celebrating or drowning their sorrows with some enthusiasm the night before and might attack their work with a bit less of that enthusiasm in the morning.

I got Greece in the sweepstake

Ross runs a call centre and along with British Gas and a number of others he plans to have a large, visible TV screen, sound turned down, so that people can watch while they do their jobs during vitally important matches. Yes, this means sometimes there will be an almighty cheer when someone scores a goal.

'Particularly if we get into the semi-finals, but this is some way away,' he says. It's all about managing the expectations of whoever is calling in for help. 'In this country we can get too precious about these things,' he suggests. 'We'll be altering our incoming voicemail so that it says we have the football on in the background, so there might well be the odd cheer.' People really won't mind, he reckons.

There are of course jobs in which a distraction isn't going to work. Ross works for public sector clients as well as private business and fully accepts that a nurse charged with the care of a patient isn't going to perform particularly well if they're keeping half an eye on the TV, and the schedule won't be flexible enough to move around any fixtures. There are still ways around this:

'You can record the match and watch it after the shift,' he says. Hold on - record it? When it's on TV live? Is he nuts or something? No, he thinks this can work if you manage it well enough. 'Tell the staff it's what you're doing and make time for them to watch it. Record the match and get them to bring in food from the cultures of the teams involved - make an event of it, and if they know that's what you're doing the chances are they'll be quite enthusiastic about joining in.'

Add a bit of topical footie-themed decoration to the viewing room and you might even find you have one of the world's least expensive office parties which ends up running itself.

Indeed, the hospitality opportunities shouldn't be overlooked. As a jobbing journalist I've had about five invitations from public relations companies suggesting I come along, join them and their client over a beer and watch the football on a big screen; sports enthusiasts will almost certainly be inclined to take up that sort of opportunity and network away, and they'll thank you for it.

There are, in fact, many options. Manage the staff around the football. Increase your bandwidth. Get TVs in, give people time off to go to a big screen, have a big telly with the sound off so people can keep up, use it as a networking opportunity, have a party. Only an individual manager is going to know his or her business well enough to decide which of these approaches is going to serve the business best, but there's a good chance one of them will.

Or you could wait until England get knocked out of the cup, inevitably on penalties to Germany, or after some flukey shot from the halfway line by the latest Brazilian wonder-kid. After that, you'll find the problem rapidly disappears.

It's only a game, eh?

Next issue: how to rejuvenate an office full of depressed football fans. [Now you really are fired 'Ed]

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles