Happy new year, get back to work

Richard Nigosian has only 10 employees at his New York agency, Bond Street Travel, and at this point, he doesn't have a single client traveling December 31 or January 1.

So you won't find Nigosian hunkered down in the office on New Year's Eve. "We couldn't get here anyway," he says. "We're four blocks off Times Square."

Nonetheless, Nigosian is giving in to the impulse to baby-sit his firm over the Y2K weekend. Every member of his staff is "on call and committed to come in if the situation starts to deteriorate." Their reward: an extra couple of days off after Thanksgiving and a long weekend in Amsterdam, gratis, sometime in January. "If they do have to be here on that weekend," Nigosian explains, "they're probably going to work like dogs."

There's no question: Lots of people will be working this New Year's Eve, and their work won't come cheap. Of course, most of the spending to fend off any computer glitches from the dreaded year-2000 software bug has already happened.

Consider, for instance, Barclay Global Investors. The money-management firm has spent more than $US400 million on Y2K-related software fixes. Shelling out another $100,000 for the 300 people who will staff its six global "command centres" for Y2K weekend is prudent insurance.

At Barclay, the outlay will cover food, party favors and a midnight champagne toast, as well as cash bonuses for participating employees of the London-based financial services firm. Also included will be "comfort" lounges with TVs and couches, extra security, hotel rooms so workers can crash, cab rides back to work and corporate-sponsored New Year's parties - in February.

By the time January brings denouement to the Y2K cliffhanger, companies around the world will have spent more than $1 trillion to battle the millennium computer bug. But depending on how things turn out, their most crucial expenditures may be the relative chump change they're shelling out for careful monitoring of their systems as 1999 rolls into 2000.

"Having people available during the transition is really going to be the key to managing it," says John McCarthy, VP of the Y2K project for Visa International. The credit card giant plans to have 3500 people in its offices worldwide through early January. "I'm not talking about people walking around the country with beepers on their belts who can be called if the need arises," McCarthy adds. "I'm talking about having people on hand in our buildings, who can handle issues for our cardholders if they should arise."

Companies are being forced to make some thorny decisions: which employees will spend the biggest night in 1000 years at their desks, how to compensate them, whether to recognise the occasion by partying at work, and even what to do about left-behind spouses and families.

Some executives say what presumably might be their biggest challenge in fact has been the easiest: getting enough employees to work on the fateful night.

"We're just handling this as a typical emergency-disaster run, and the same kinds of people have to be here," says Julie Sproul, community relations director for St. Mary Hospital in Michigan. "We've had Y2K drills three times. Then we had a real disaster here with a chemical spill, where we received 40 patients. That's a pretty good test, too."

Many employees working full-time on Y2K abatement have understood for a year or two, or even longer, that they would be tied to their jobs on Dec. 31. Other firms are trying to lighten the Y2K burden by requiring most technical people to be available via pager, or by prohibiting vacations during the rollover period. A September survey by William M Mercer, an HR consulting firm, found 87 per cent of employers are restricting leave for New Year's weekend, up from 68 per cent in a June survey. Amdahl, a computer maker, has canceled all vacations from December 27 through January 7.

Bridge Information Systems, a provider of investment-market information, is mandating New Year's Eve work for about 100 people, most at its St Louis headquarters. It has also prohibited its 600 St Louis-area employees from traveling outside the region, and banned vacations for workers at any of its worldwide locations from taking vacations from December 28 through the first two weeks of January.

"We are 24-7, 365 days a year anyway, because we have a news organisation," says Jeff Wells, Bridge's VP of product development. "So there's no particular problem."

Many companies are offering extra perks to their war-room staff, including extra pay and vacation days. KeyCorp, a bank-holding company, is raffling off TVs and apparel throughout the weekend for 1000 workers who will be spending New Year's in the office.

Burson-Marsteller, a New York public relations firm, got 200 employees to agree to handhold with clients on New Year's Eve in exchange for a $US2000 cash bonus and a hotel package for any weekend other than the last one of the millennium.

Companies also report a groundswell of volunteerism. "If you've been working on this project all along, it's kind of like working on the space launch," explains John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Are you going to decide not to be there the day the rocket lands on the moon? There are a lot of people who wouldn't miss it for the world."

Microsoft has "even turned down a lot of people who want to come in," says Don Jones, director of year-2000 readiness for the software giant, which will have about 3000 of its 34,000 employees at work for the big weekend.

"They view Y2K as a technology thing. Where else would they want to be that night than at the world's largest technology company?"

Still, Microsoft and other companies are trying to accommodate for the fact that a big celebration will be going on outside the workplace. Microsoft will have a party going on outside its central monitoring area, with a champagne toast at midnight, the distribution of individual "time capsules" to workers, a disk jockey and dancing, remarks by president Steve Ballmer and even a video that spoofs the occasion.

"I think there's [going to be] some of my testimony to Congress about Y2K and some news footage and internal training films," says Jones. "We're going to poke some fun at ourselves."

First Coast Service Options, one of the country's largest Medicare claims processors, will have about 300 employees ready to pitch in over the weekend, including 20 at its headquarters. The company plans to shower its workers with attention and amusements. Friday night, it'll be non-alcoholic champagne. On New Year's Day, the company will supply "endless" popcorn, snack bags, gift certificates to a nice restaurant, and "Y2K VIP" jackets and backpacks.

Partly because they're reluctant to allow alcohol in the office, many employers are putting a special accent on feeding their Y2K contingents. At Levi Strauss in San Francisco, crab cakes and tiramisu from posh local restaurants are on the menu. Brown Brothers Harriman, a private New York investment bank, will offer a choice of salmon or tenderloin. Visa plans a china-and-silver dinner for its London office.

The touchiest issue is whether to involve families in the festivities. Visa "won't have any spouses around," says McCarthy. "We just chose not to take on the liability. We're not going to worry about those people. We're taking care of our employees. And by giving them a bonus, we're saying we want [them] to do something nice for the spouses who can't be here."

Bringing families to the office could create a "particularly" messy scene in the event of a power loss, agrees Steve Frycki, managing director of DMR Consulting Group, a firm that advises on Y2K rollover.

Mutual fund empire Fidelity Investments in Boston has found a compromise solution by giving Y2K workers a stipend for child care for the evening. "We're going to follow up with some special activities for employees and their significant others," says Philip Murphy, Burson-Marsteller's North American Y2K coordinator. "We're really asking these people to make a sacrifice to put their company ahead of their family and friends- and to stay sober. We want to recognise them for that."

Microsoft is among the minority of employers that is unabashedly catering to the left-behind, inviting spouses to its bash and contracting for on-site day care. "We took all the issues under advisement from our risk and legal departments," says Jones, "and determined that these folks have worked pretty darn hard over the last few years, so we're going to just do it."

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