By Rieva Lesonsky

Is your business ready for March Madness? Every year around the nation, the annual NCAA basketball playoffs cause a productivity panic among business owners and managers. Is everyone standing around checking their brackets, streaming games on their computers and not getting any work done?

Let’s face it, these days that’s not just a dilemma during March Madness anymore. With employees having the ability to surf the Net on their phones, tablets or desktops (and click away before you know what they’re doing) at any moment how much control can you have? Even if you can control and monitor what your employees are using their desktops for, can you do so when they’re out of the office on business or when they’re checking their brackets on smartphones at their desk?

Employees’ unregulated Internet use can have real and serious consequences for a  business, whether their streaming March Madness games is squeezing your Internet connection so hard that real work slows to a crawl, or whether they’re posting something about their brackets on social media that you don’t want your competition to know about. So where do you draw the line?

As a longtime manager before I started my own business, I’ve learned that treating employees like children doesn’t get great results—but treating them like adults does. So I suggest being honest with your team and taking the following three steps:

  1. Focus on results. Yes, you acknowledge that most people will take a little time to goof off by Facebooking, online shoe shopping or checking their brackets. These are the ways we take breaks today—and many studies have suggested that these types of breaks (within reason) actually boost productivity. So what matters most is whether employees get their work done. If the Internet starts to interfere with that, then you need to have a conversation about it.
  2. Set ground rules. That said, you need to set some ground rules for Internet use, especially when it comes to your business’s sensitive data, customer information and keeping your network safe. You can put up as many firewalls as you like, but human error is still the biggest way computer viruses spread and data leaks happen. Make sure your employees know what type of information can and can’t be shared, what protections you have in place and what common-sense rules to follow.
  3. Be vigilant about technology. If you don’t have an IT person on staff, retain a freelance IT consultant who can make sure your business is up to snuff in terms of software patches, firewalls and network security measures. You can’t expect to keep your business safe if you don’t keep your technology up to date. Today, this is just one more part of our job.

As for March Madness? It can be a team-builder or a dealbreaker, all depending on how you approach it. Whether you print out and pass out brackets or try to clamp down, I’d love to hear what rules  you set for your team when it comes to Internet use at work all year long.