Team Canada game: Why it's OK to watch hockey at work

In a world where livestreaming and mobile devices abound, employers would probably have been wise to at least acknowledge the fact their employees were watching today's Olympic men's hockey game. Research suggests it might even have helped productivity.

If nothing else, it should boost morale around the water cooler

Canadian Tire employees show their support for the men's hockey team while they watch its quarter-final game against Latvia. (CBC)

Even if employees looked as if they were engrossed in their work today in their office towers and factories, there's a good chance the hockey fans among them were keeping a close eye on how Sidney Crosby and his teammates were doing in their bid to win Olympic gold.

Maybe those workers were surreptitiously running a second screen on their desktop computer, or taking a quick glance every now and then as the men's semifinal win over the U.S. was streaming live from Sochi onto their smartphones.

In any event, workplace experts suggest that, in a world where livestreaming, social media and mobile devices are now facts of life, employers might be wise to embrace — or at least acknowledge — the interest their employees have in such high-profile events as Olympic hockey or the World Cup.

That kind of approach, they say, can be far more effective in the long run than demanding or expecting 100 per cent attention to the work at hand when a nation's sporting honour is at stake.

"It's a reality that companies have to face," says John Trougakos, an associate professor of management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

"To say it's not going to be an issue, or a non-factor, is almost like putting your head in the sand and ignoring the obvious."

In hockey-mad Canada, it would be hard to ignore the hype — and the hopes — that have been placed on the men's hockey team as it looks to defend the Olympic gold medal it won in Vancouver four years ago.

And it wasn't hard to keep up with the action today even if you were at work.

So many ways to keep up

"There are so many ways that people can keep up with things on their telephones and computers," says Trougakos.

People are keeping up. The women's gold medal hockey game Thursday posted the highest online viewing audience ever to a CBC live event, according to Adobe Site Catalyst and BBM Canada, with a preliminary average audience of more than 325,000 viewers on desktop and mobile combined. That total topped the previous record of 280,000 registered the day before for the men's hockey quarter-final game between Canada and Latvia.

As much as employers might want their employees to stay focussed on the job at hand, being heavy-handed about it could end up backfiring.

Canadian Tire employees at the corporation's headquarters in Toronto watch Wednesday's Olympic men's hockey game between Canada and Latvia. (CBC)

"It can actually have the opposite effect on productivity," says Trougakos.

Research has shown that if people have a particular distraction on their mind, and they're not allowed to take part in it, they actually perform less effectively, he says.

"They make mistakes. They're cognitively distracted and so to the extent that people are really thinking about this game, they're not going to perform that [well], potentially anyways."

Trougakos also suggests that companies can use events like this as an opportunity to boost morale, by putting a TV in a break room or providing updates during meetings.

"It could be looked at as a way to, while temporarily reducing the amount of work employees will be doing, having longer term benefits in terms of showing employees … that the organization values them."

None of this, experts suggest, means employees got a free pass from their work today. The job still needed to get done.

Be professional

"This isn't simply all on management," says Steve Prentice, a Toronto specialist in at-work productivity and a partner in the Bristall Group.

"Employees have to be professional and disciplined … just the same as they don't spend the entire day on the phone or don't spend their computer time on gambling websites at the company's desk."

Prentice says he's been a longtime proponent of the idea that "productivity in the workplace actually comes from breaks, not from continued blocks of focus."

"I would say the best way, not just simply for the hockey game or the Olympics specifically, but the best way to pull productivity from your employees is to allow them to break away from the work at select intervals and then come back to it."

That doesn't necessarily mean ducking away for two and a half hours to watch the full hockey game.

"But it would mean that I would want my staff to be able to, even if they put in half an hour, an hour's worth or work and then jump online, see what the score is, see what the replays are, and then come back to work mentally in a couple of minutes," says Prentice.

The kind of bonding that goes on around something like an international sporting event can be invaluable for the team-building that most companies desire.

'Relaxing for every one of us'

At the Canadian Tire Corporation headquarters in Toronto on Wednesday, workers — with the company's blessing — gathered to watch the Olympic men's hockey quarter-final game between Canada and Latvia.

Barry Airuoyuwa welcomed the opportunity to watch part of the game with his co-workers.

"We have work to do, we're all busy, but it's a way to take us away from the work environment and make it relaxing for every one of us."

Rob Nicol, Canadian Tire's vice-president of corporate affairs, says the company sees benefits in giving employees the opportunity to watch Olympic coverage during the work day. (CBC)

Rob Nicol, Canadian Tire's vice-president for corporate affairs, says the company, an Olympic sponsor, had been following the Games closely and thought it would be good to give employees a common place to watch the hockey quarter-final.

"There's two different employers right now. There's areas where people are probably watching it at their desk surreptitiously or they've gone out for a long lunch," he says.

"We're the opposite. We're embracing the fact that we're all proud of our Canadian team, we're proud of the Olympics, we enjoy the Olympics, we're huge hockey fans obviously.

"And so why not bring everybody together and celebrate and enjoy it, and watch it as a joint experience with your co-workers and the rest of the people that you work with on a regular basis?"

Nicol thinks that has benefits for Canadian Tire: "An engaged … workforce is good for any company."

Striking a balance

Prentice would echo that assessment.

"It's always a balance. The employees are being paid to do work, absolutely, but at the same time, to have engaged employees means to give some degree of rest and relaxation and comfort within the workplace. Otherwise, you just lose a good employee."

Prentice says he often runs into skepticism or cynicism about his views, a feeling that employees would simply take advantage of any opportunity employers provided.

But he says leadership is about making your team want to work the way you want them to work.

"You're going to get some stumbles and you're going to get some people abusing this, but overall most people who want to work and like their jobs recognize that there is a trade-off and part of … their professional offering is their ability to adhere to the mandate of their job, but that's got to be done in a flexible fashion."

With files from CBC News


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