Is flexibility the cure for World Cup fever?

So the office sweepstake has been arranged, the FIFA wall chart is pinned to the noticeboard, and you've set calendar reminders for Honduras v Ecuador and South Korea v Algeria. Not only that, but you can't sleep for nervous excitement, and when you do finally drop off, you're faced with nightmares about vuvuzelas, penalty shoot-outs and Wayne Rooney's tournament goal drought.

Of course, this can only mean one thing - there's another case of World Cup fever going around. Once every four years, everyone catches this most contagious of bugs, whether they're ardent football fans or don't know their Eusébios from their Roger Millas. No sooner than action kicks-off on June 12th, the whole office will be debating team selections, wonder strikes, ugly tackles and the perils of playing in the Amazon rainforest.

With wall-to-wall media and TV coverage, the World Cup is a fantastic spectacle for sports fans, and not only that, one of those rare events that inspires mass patriotism. But at the same time, it can be an ordeal for employers - particularly those who approach the event in the wrong way. Undoubtedly they face challenges - how can you sustain productivity when everyone has their mind on the big game? But at the same time, effective preparation and planning can mitigate the potential damage.

What are the risks for employers?

Among the problems experienced by employers during previous stagings of the World Cup have been distracted employees, increased absenteeism, and reduced productivity and output. With this in mind, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) is urging employers to have agreements in place that cover requests for time off, sickness, website use during working hours and watching TV. This way, at least everybody knows where they stand, not only for the football this June and July, but for other popular sporting events such as the Olympic Games.

In a World Cup year, many workers make annual leave requests to coincide with the big matches - something which threatens to reduce capacity and put teams under pressure. Employers can reject holiday applications, but in doing so they may affect the morale of individual staff members and impact on their performance. Acas suggests a more flexible approach to requests is appropriate, and that, at the very least, each one should be considered fairly. Managers need to be consistent, and not be seen to favour one worker over another.

Unauthorised absence has often been a problem for employers in the past, particularly when the home nations have played games during standard working hours. World Cup fever seemingly leaves employees bed-ridden and unable to come in to work, ahead of a Lazarus-like recovery the next day. Acas says levels of attendance should be monitored in accordance with the company's official policy, with any patterns of absence resulting in formal proceedings where necessary.

Presenteeism can also be a problem for organisations, where employees come into work but do little, if anything, productive while they are there. It may be that workers stream matches over the internet to their PC, listed to the radio, or spend all day trawling football messageboards and monitoring live text reports. Either way, they are not doing what they are paid to do, and this has consequences for overall levels of output. Acas advises employers to have a clear policy in place for the use of social media and World Cup-related websites, and ensure this is communicated to all staff members. "If employers are monitoring internet usage, then the law requires them to make it clear that it is happening to all employees," it notes.

With the 2014 renewal of the tournament being staged in Brazil, the difficulties faced by organisations may be slightly different this time to normal. The earliest matches start at 17:00 BST, meaning there should be less of a clash between normal working hours and live matches. However, the late kick-off times may encourage more fans to stay up late watching games, and potentially visit pubs and bars during midweek. Should alcohol consumption levels rise, there could be an impact on performance and productivity the following day.

An opportunity for engagement

But all is not lost for employers, far from it. While a World Cup undoubtedly creates certain management challenges, it also presents opportunities to improve workplace morale. Organisations that fully embrace the tournament and all it entails may be able to boost staff engagement, and achieve a net benefit in the long term. The key is to accept that many employees are fanatical about the World Cup - they will follow it regardless, whatever rules and regulations stand in their way. Rather than being combative towards staff, employers should look for positive ways to harness their enthusiasm.

Options for employers include bringing a TV set into work and inviting employees to stay in the office to watch some games. If they are willing to cater as well, providing food and drink for staff members, it can create a party atmosphere. This can encourage workers to socialise with their colleagues, form stronger relationships and build more successful teams. Running sweepstakes, competitions and other themed events allows everyone to get involved, regardless of whether they know their inside-left from their outside-right.

An alternative - indeed opposite - approach may be to invite employees to work from home for a few days during the tournament. The advent of super-fast internet services and cloud computing means it is now possible for many professionals to do their job from any location, so long as they can get online. If employees are able to avoid the commute the morning after a big game, and can treat themselves to another hour in bed, this could potentially have a positive effect on their individual productivity.

Professionals may also be keen to impress their managers with their home-working output, realising this may pave the way for further opportunities to work flexibly in the future. They should be doubly-determined to put in a good shift, in order to justify the faith placed in them by their boss. So long as they get through their full workload and standards don't slip, nobody will begrudge them watching highlights from a Group D dead rubber during their afternoon break.

Conclusion

The World Cup is an inevitable occurrence - it comes round once every four years whether employers like it or not. They have two options: either swim against the tide with their rigid people management policies, or try as best to go with the flow.

For many organisations, embracing tournament fever may be the best way to navigate what will always be a disruptive month. A willingness to be flexible and compromise with employees, providing they continue to perform, ensures employers can reap the rewards. Rather than simply surviving the World Cup summer, they can perhaps even thrive.

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