02/21/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 04/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Why it's OK to watch hockey at work today

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

Maybe those workers will be surreptitiously running a second screen on their desktop computer, or taking a quick glance every now and then at the men's semifinal game 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 won't be hard to keep up with the action today even if you are 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.

And 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.

"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 get a free pass from their work today. The job still needs 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 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."