Inauguration: And Now, an Obama Break

Barack Obama has already had an impact on workplaces across the country, and it has nothing to do with promises, worrisome or otherwise, of new policies and regulations. It's Obama's inauguration itself that has many executives sensing an unprecedented opportunity. They hope to tap into the general enthusiasm surrounding Jan. 20, mostly because they want to recognize the historic significance of Obama's presidency (in appropriately nonpartisan ways, of course), but also because there is so little else employees can get excited about these days.

Companies that are making plans for Inauguration Day don't expect their employees to slack off altogether. Besides, aren't we all multitasking anyway? An hour here (and Obama's speech is conveniently scheduled for noon EST, during most people's lunch time), a few minutes there: Most businesses will barely notice the disruption. Especially if you compare Inauguration Day to the many other distractions in the office, from everyday online malingering to the predictable onset of March Madness—even to the drawn-out election primary season.

"If anything, companies would have a gain in productivity, in terms of commitment to the organization, among those who care about being able to watch the inauguration," says John Challenger of Challenger, Gray, & Christmas. That's the executive outplacement firm that always makes a big deal about lost productivity. Last year it estimated that the two-week-long men's college basketball tournament cost companies some $1.7 billion in wasted time.

"It's not a disruption if you control it," says Richard Chaifetz, the head of ComPsych, the country's biggest provider of employee assistance programs. And at a time when most employees are feeling vulnerable, they're not likely to while away the hours. "Employees know they're being watched more carefully," he says.

Refreshing Optimism

PepsiCo (PEP) is one of those companies that has decided to make the most of the occasion. It is, as you may have noticed, trying to capture some of the Obama optimism in a new advertising campaign (known as "Refresh"). It's not leaving its employees out, either. "People will remember where they were on Inauguration Day, and we want to give our associates the opportunity to share that experience as a group," says company spokesperson David DeCecco in an e-mail.

Everyone at the company's offices in Purchase, N.Y., Plano, Tex., and Chicago has been invited to view live broadcasts of the inauguration. Members of Pepsi's government affairs staff will be there to provide insights and comments, according to DeCecco. Employees can play presidential trivia games; winners will receive the Pepsi inauguration swag being handed out in Washington, including buttons, bags, hats, and scarves.

In Marriott's (MAR) headquarters, right outside the capital in Bethesda, Md., red, white and blue balloons as well as American flags will be flying all day. Presidential music will be playing. The cafeteria will be serving what spokesperson Stephanie Hampton calls all-American food: meatloaf, turkey, mashed potatoes, and apple pie. Employees will be offered American flag pins and trail mix (a favorite of Obama's). They can have their photo taken with a six-foot cardboard cutout of the new President. Oh, and a television will be tuned to the inaugural proceedings from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in an auditorium that accommodates about 300 people. Other TVs already in the office and cafeteria will be on as well.

Marriott usually celebrates Inaugural Day, says Hampton via e-mail, but "we believe this is a historic American milestone. We want our employees who are at the office to experience it," while still doing their jobs. "It helps keep morale high and our employees engaged."

Keep 'Em at Their Desks

At Raytheon (RTN), executives are encouraging those not involved in "mission-critical work" to watch the inauguration on the offices' plasma-screen TVs. The company will also have a live news feed on its own Web site so people can watch at their desks.

"We can't afford any interruptions, but we do want people to take in the enormity of the situation and what it means for our country," says Charlene A. Wheeless, who heads communications for the division that sells intelligence and information systems. That's the group that is also broadcasting the inauguration live to American troops around the world, even to those serving in submarines or in caves in Afghanistan (they'll be able to see it on their hand-held devices).

Some companies aren't planning anything as elaborate as, say, Marriott but still are acknowledging the day. They know some employees don't just want to watch the proceedings; they want to watch together. Microsoft (MSFT), HBO (TWX), Astra Zeneca, among others, are providing the space and extra televisions so that they can. Some companies, too, might prefer that employees watch on TV rather than online since there's less chance of servers crashing that way.

Sharing Via the Web

In a way, Inauguration Day will be a social media experiment. CNN has joined with Facebook to encourage people to update their pages while watching the Inauguration. "I'm sure people will do that here," says Joanna Pineda, founder of Matrix Group International, a small company in Alexandria, Va., that designs Web sites for nonprofits and trade associations. "It will be a distraction, but it will also be a big social Web experience. It's research."

And then there are the companies, including Ernst & Young, Netflix (NFLX), and Ben & Jerry's (creator of the inauguration special, Yes Pecan) that say their workplace is already flexible enough to accommodate their employees' interest in the inauguration. "Whether it's inauguration or a school play or a doctor's appointment, people have the flexibility to participate, and we trust them to meet their deadlines," says Billie Williamson, a senior partner who heads up Ernst & Young's "inclusiveness" efforts.

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