The other Attack of the Clones

I’m a little sick today. Not as sick as yesterday, but a combination of minor food poisoning and damp weather have left my immune system a little weak. I’m still not sick enough to stay home, but if the past is any guide, I should be saving those sick days anyway. After all, Star Wars Episode II:

Attack of the Clones opens in a few weeks.

When I woke up this morning, my radio alarm was turned to Toronto’s 680 News, which carried a story about rumblings in the business community that George Lucas’s latest creation could be more trouble than Darth Vader caused Luke Skywalker. Though calculations are approximate, it is expected that the volume of people calling in sick so they can go see the sci-fi flick could cost the economy millions of dollars in lost productivity and sales. The radio station dubbed it Skywalkeritis (I prefer The Naboo Flu) and said high-tech workers were especially prone due to what they called the geek quotient in their ranks. I tried not to curse them as I struggled out of bed.

Unlike the heady days of the original trilogy, companies have had recent experience to prepare them for this high-tech hooky. When Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, stories surfaced about tech placement agencies in San Jose and San Francisco whose demand for temp workers skyrocketed around May, when the movie opened. Some of the best-known names in the business, like Oracle, took the pre-emptive move of booking entire movie theatres and scheduling screenings for their staff. This phenomenon is not limited to the United States: not long ago Montreal-based security company Zero-Knowledge Systems sent out a press release bragging about the fact they took their employees to see Mission: Impossible II.

In a sense, Attack of the Clones will be more than a box-office bellweather: it will be a litmus test for the tolerance of companies towards their IT people. About a year ago the New Yorker published a profile of an inventor who once worked at Apple Computer Corp. and contributed to the creation of the PowerBook. He recalled a corporate culture in which he was encouraged to go for long walks, bike rides or any other activity that would get his creative juices going. This mushroomed into a dot-com craze of offices filled with foozeball tables and beanbag chairs. My sense now is that companies are no longer willing to be quite so indulgent. Even if they can afford it, there seems to be an accepted wisdom that an image must be maintained for the shareholders of responsible management. These days, if they’re asking you to take a hike, they don’t want you to come back.

Like the halcyon period of staff screenings, this approach can also be taken to extremes. On Thursday HP, for example, said it has decided to postpone its Invent developers conference. The reason, according to the company, is that corporate enterprises are no longer willing to let people out of the office, especially for multi-day events. It is planning to retool the conference into regional events and Webcasts.

As the economy recovers, it would be nice to see a balance between these two worlds. There can be great value in giving staff the time to develop their skills and make contacts, particularly away from their desks. The best ideas often come outside the cubicle walls. On the other hand, employees need to show enough responsibility towards their colleagues and customers that they don’t call in sick to go to the movies.

In the meantime, perhaps forward-thinking managers will join their subordinates at the multiplex. If it’s going to cause anywhere near the absences experts predict, clones may be just what they’re looking for.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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