Business takes a break for Obama

Many companies nationwide slowed down to witness inauguration, history on Tuesday

January 22, 2009|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,

Employees at Planit advertising agency in Baltimore got back to work yesterday, expecting to make up for time lost on Inauguration Day.

As in many offices, the company virtually shut down for an hour or so Tuesday so workers could watch the festivities.

The scene during the swearing-in and address had been eerily surreal: no phones ringing, no BlackBerries beeping, no elevators arriving and almost no traffic 10 stories below Planit's offices on Pratt Street.

Most of Planit's 50 workers gathered in the firm's lobby, perching on armchairs or stools, or standing within view of the flat-screen TV.

It was a scene that was repeated in offices throughout the country this week as workers watched history.

For the first time in recent memory, experts said, the inauguration became a workplace event. Workers gathered around TVs or tapped in via Internet at their desks. In the Baltimore area, some businesses gave their workers the day off, while others allowed employees to bring televisions or arrange viewing parties.

"It was a great, unique opportunity," said Planit's president, Matthew Doud, who encouraged workers to watch the event together. "Regardless of political views, everyone rallied together and said this is a big deal. We all sort of sat down and took in a moment of cheering and tearing and saying goodbye to the old and the optimism of moving forward."

During the inaugural address, AT&T said it noticed a slight dip in land-line telephone use. (Though the company said text messaging via cell phone spiked by about 500 percent in downtown Washington.) A Verizon spokeswoman said land-line calls were down about 20 percent, mostly in the D.C. area.

"A lot of it was due to the fact that many offices were closed," Verizon's Sandra Arnette said.

Even though commerce at many companies might have slowed for at least part of the day, productivity probably didn't suffer much, said John Challenger, chief executive officer of outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"Companies are so down right now, revenues are down, and the economy is depressed," Challenger said. "So an event like this really can bring people together around something optimistic. It was a shared experience. The partisan divides weren't there on this day. Companies were smart to let people watch it and kind of tap into that energy."

Planit's Doud said the speech appeared to have a positive effect on employees, though he acknowledged that the company didn't make any money during the speech.

"The message ... was 'Let's get down to business,' " he said.

"Everyone walked out of there like, let's go, with a new perspective of accountability."

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