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For many, snow day is business as usual

Telecommuters put in full shifts from kitchens, cafes

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By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / January 13, 2011

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People may not have made it to work during yesterday’s ferocious snowstorm, but many put in what felt like a full day at the office.

They sat at their kitchen tables surrounded by office paperwork, or hunkered down with coffee and a laptop at neighborhood cafes. Though power outages stymied some, even electricity was not an absolute necessity. Some worked by BlackBerry until battery power dried up.

Karen Marinella Hall, an employee at EMD Millipore in Billerica who worked out of her Milton home, said yesterday was like any other workday, with e-mails “flying all over the place’’ even as snow piled up outside.

“My first conference call was right at 9 o’clock this morning, and it’s been going all day,’’ she said. “Haven’t missed a beat.’’

Across the region, technology has changed the nature of the snow day. Some retailers, such as car dealers, experience a slump, but for many other Massachusetts industries, a winter whiteout no longer brings business to a halt. And some economists say the newly wired world may even make workers more productive.

“The ability to telecommute means employers have to spend less money on physical space and it may allow people to be more productive,’’ said Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pa. “I’d argue that on net, it’s probably a plus for the economy.’’

That’s particularly the case in Massachusetts’ technology sector, where companies routinely outfit employees with what they need to stay connected. EnerNOC, a Boston energy management company, gave employees the choice of coming into the office. Sarah McAuley, a company spokeswoman, said at-home employees have access to corporate instant messaging, allowing them to collaborate with colleagues, including through video chats.

“Productivity doesn’t really suffer,’’ McAuley said.

Charles Mulloy, a spokesman for Intel Corp., which employs 1,800 people in Massachusetts, said many of the company’s office employees worked from home. At Intel’s manufacturing facility in Hudson, production slowed because some employees couldn’t get into work.

In South Boston, the majority of workers at shaving giant Gillette stayed home, according to Mike Norton, a spokesman for the company’s parent, Procter & Gamble Co. of Cincinnati.

“Only personnel essential for basic manufacturing operations are on site, and we are encouraging them to use public transportation,’’ Norton said. “We equipped most employees to work from home using telephone, computers, and other mobile technology.’’

Retailers closed corporate headquarters, entire shopping centers, and small independent stores. BJ’s Wholesale Club in Westborough, TJX Cos. in Framingham, and Reebok and Dunkin’ Brands in Canton all shuttered their headquarters, and employees worked from home.

Fortunately for the snow plowers, coffee kept flowing at many Dunkin’ Donuts shops across Massachusetts. “Our franchisees have lived in New England for a long time, and they know the role they play in their communities, so I haven’t heard of any closures,’’ said spokesman Andrew Mastrangelo.

In Salisbury, Tom Newman, the owner of Tom’s Discount Store, spent yesterday plowing the shopping plaza lot, opening his shop only for a few emergency sales.

“It is hard to make enough profit to justify being open when there’s this much snow,’’ said Newman’s wife and co-owner, Maryann. “Tom is plowing our lot and has stopped to unlock the store a few times when people begged him to sell them a shovel or snow brush. Other than that, people seem to be staying in.’’

Even yesterday’s commuter rush hour lacked an actual rush. Roads were relatively empty, and seats were widely available on many subway trains.

“Ridership was fairly low today,’’ said MBTA general manager Richard A. Davey. “Much lower than we would expect during a normal weekday rush hour.’’

Nancy Greenfield, director of leisure travel at Garber Travel, said she worked at home, arranging to have her office voice-mail messages delivered to her home computer. Other Garber staffers were in the office, fielding phone calls from people dreaming of warm, sandy beaches.

“We’re getting a huge amount of inquiries about vacations,’’ Greenfield said. “On a day where you expect it would be very, very slow, we are very engaged.’’

Still, there remain the especially hardy souls who seem to thrive in the worst New England has to offer. Stephen Leggett, a 59-year-old cab driver who has been on the roads of Boston since he was 19, helped stranded travelers get home, driving throughout the night, even as the storm raged. “The worst was 4 or 5 this morning,’’ Leggett said.

Leggett said most city cab drivers took yesterday off, not wanting to risk a crash and lost wages. But with 40 years of driving experience behind him, Leggett said that is something he has never done.

“I drove the blizzard of ’78,’’ he said.

G lobe correspondent Alli Knothe and Globe staff members Jenn Abelson, Erin Ailworth, Hiawatha Bray, Katie Johnston-Chase, Casey Ross, and Eric Moskowitz contributed to this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.