Culture

How to Support Teammates Living in Ukraine — or Any War Zone

1 Mar 2022 9:50am, by
Ukrainian flag waving against darkened sky and mountains

If you work on a large enough tech team, you have Ukrainian colleagues. IT is the most exported service in Ukraine, the largest European exporter of IT services. That doesn’t mean it is the only country experiencing war and crisis right now but, for many in tech’s Global North, it brings war and worry a whole lot closer.

You want to help your teammates, but you don’t know where to start. And you don’t want to increase the emotional burden on those who are already fighting, bunkering or fleeing for their lives.

This article is focused on practical ways to help your colleagues in crisis. The advice here isn’t comprehensive, as circumstances are in constant flux, but we hope that our readers will help fill in the gaps.

Offer Paid Time Off, by Default

Unlimited paid time off is a great place to start. You don’t even have to ask about this one — employees may feel compelled to work, but don’t expect them to keep regular hours. Assume they’ll need flexibility. Take the first stressor off their plates by assuring them their income is secure, that someone else is covering their work when needed and that you are there for them.

This offer should extend past colleagues based in war zones, to those that live elsewhere but have loved ones in danger. Colleagues from other Eastern European countries will also be experiencing a heavier sense of worry — and of duty to volunteer. Offer space, understanding and time to them as well.

Don’t forget to give colleagues paid time off while they are helping, too. Whether it’s driving across Europe to welcome colleagues in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania or Moldova, protesting in their home countries, providing cybersecurity support, or being the office caretaker, this work is important too. Be explicit that your organization values this work.

Make Sure Payday Comes — on Time

As payday approaches, consider the special issues your team members in the war region might face. If your team members and contractors are paid in Ukrainian hryvni or Russian rubles, they may worry that they won’t receive paychecks on time.

Infrastructure can be interrupted, along with much of Russia being kicked out of the SWIFT system that enables international transactions, meaning they may not be able to access funds the usual way.

First, ask if they would prefer to receive their paycheck in a different manner — from a different currency to European bank accounts to PayPal — and expedite that through your finance team.

Global employment platform OysterHR recommends companies check that their payment providers haven’t already shut down local currency payments to Ukraine or Russia: “Your payment providers may also wish to route payments to other international entities in the meantime to mitigate the impact on your team members.”

And don’t just focus on this paycheck. Teammates may request a salary advancement for fear they won’t be able to access it next month or because they need funds to set up in a new location, within or outside Ukraine. Several tech companies have planned for this:

  • Lemon.io, a Ukraine-based company that matches freelance developers with startups, foresaw this situation, sending employees in Ukraine two months’ salary in advance and doubling the frequency of salary payments, according to technology news website The Information. The company also enacted new policies to ensure that if any employee joins the civilian defense force or is under attack, they will keep their jobs and be paid their full salary.
  • According to an internal Slack message from its CEO Johnny Boufarhat, Hopin, a virtual event platform, has given a $3,000 emergency fund to each of its 27 Ukrainian employees, some of whom were part of layoffs announced last week.
  • JustAnswer, which provides online professional services consultations, is stockpiling cash in-country, as well as in a Polish bank close to its office, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. The move was made in order to pay staff in the case of power outages or cyberattacks that shut down local banks.

Your staff may love their jobs in tech, but they are still jobs. Don’t skirt around conversations about money, as it may be the only way to know if they need help.

Ask, ‘What Do You Need?’

The next logical step is to ask how you can help. “What do you need right now?” is a powerful, open-ended question.

The Women Who Code community asked members from their network in Kyiv to share ways they needed folks to support. They responded:

  • Protest and call for action from world leaders.
  • Amplify voices from people on the ground.
  • Only share accurate, fact-based information.
  • Vote with your wallet.

But the help colleagues need may be more specific than this. When you ask someone directly how you can help, answers may surprise you and actions that seem small can be important to an individual.

That’s what Eugene Kulak learned in talking to his friends and former and current colleagues. He’s a Ukrainian software engineer and architect who works on sundry outsourced projects, one of which had him temporarily relocate to Georgia in late February. When he left, he didn’t expect his country to be invaded, but now he’s looking for ways to support Ukraine from abroad.

The most common request he gets is for more information. An outside perspective can act as the link among dispersed colleagues, as well as provide vital information of danger zones and resources coming from abroad. Kulak even had a friend from Russia, whose family doesn’t trust what’s happening. She requested videos from actual Ukrainians, not mass media, to show her kin the situation in Ukraine.

He told The New Stack that most of his friends in tech really live cash-free lives, so they are having difficulties accessing their money. “Even if I can transfer them money, they cannot use it,” he said. As many banking terminals are broken or offline now, one colleague asked Kulak to top up their phone’s available data and minutes from abroad.

Fuel supplies are also running low, so another friend asked him for a map of gas stations.

Kulak said he can feel helpless as a sudden outsider, but in these small ways, he has been able to help his colleagues. He has also let clients know that he may not always be available, because he is prioritizing helping people on the ground.

 

Remember: It’s Not About You

You are not the Ukrainians’ priority — or that of any team member living in a war zone. It’s not their job nor their focus to make you feel better about their trauma. They may be out of touch for hours and even days at a time. And each person will differ in how involved they want their employer to be in their situation.

Be careful what you say and how often you say it. Don’t make them waste time retelling the same story. If you follow them on social media, be sure to look there first for updates. A lot of companies have created a Slack or Telegram channel just for this purpose.

More than anything, be cognizant not to add to their emotional bandwidth, while still making sure they know you’ll make time for what they need.

If your company is helping organize anything for a colleague, choose one or two point persons (to cover 24 hours) to act as liaisons. Then, with the permission of the colleague you’re helping, that point person can update the rest of the team.

Hopin delegated an alert team tasked with maintaining an open line of communication around Ukrainian colleagues’ safety. The CEO also explicitly requested that managers remove any workload from those employees.

Dafina Hristova, brand manager at Exalate by iDalko, a Belgian company that provides integrations for Atlassian tools, told The New Stack that her organization is using an internal channel for communications to reach out at least once a day to her Ukrainian colleagues.

This communication, she said, is especially in endangered areas “to make sure the connection is not lost and that they feel supported and heard. Also for them to share their relocation plans, so we can plan support.”

Offer Help with Logistics

As infrastructure will be invariably unstable, colleagues in war zones will sometimes have challenges staying connected when they most need it. Anything you as a company can do to provide them access to internet and phone services is important.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company deployed Starlink satellites to help keep Ukraine online. But bombings can also cause rolling blackouts, so even helping your teammates in war zones find new ways to charge their devices can be a huge help.

Cash, provisions like canned food and water, and camping equipment — especially sleeping bags and gas heaters — is what Hristova said her iDalko colleagues have requested most in this first week of war.

Logistical help is also in high demand. “Transportation services in Ukraine for people who need to move between different locations or to reach checkpoints at the state borders,” Hristova said. “Contacting transportation service companies is possible from outside Ukraine, so people can help with arrangements.” Plus coordinating boarding passes and changing travel plans on Ukrainian colleagues’ behalf.

It’s also very likely your Ukrainian teammates will need help finding temporary or permanent housing, whether within Ukraine or abroad.

This of course leads to the biggest logistical rigamarole — visa sponsorship and immigration process assistance. A good employer will cover the costs of relocation not only of employees but of their families.

Be proactive in sharing any tips that are particularly valuable to them right now, including protecting their social media from attacks, like with two-factor authentication — if their phones will work across borders. Again, one point person could compile a quick list of actions and share, so not everyone is inundating them with information.

The no-code website builder Wix.com — which according to LinkedIn, has more than 700 employees based in Ukraine — was ahead of most companies by having offered weeks ago to fly staff and their families out of the country, with all travel and living expenses covered.

In addition, Wix teammates drove from Lithuania this week to welcome other colleagues — who they haven’t met before — at the Polish border.

Brad Hoover, CEO of the Ukrainian-American company Grammarly, wrote on LinkedIn: “While we hope for the best, we have also prepared for the worst. That includes having contingency plans for various scenarios, along with financial and logistical assistance to better support our team members and their families in getting to safety.”

Stay Small in Scope

It’s a global problem, but, as a colleague or employee, try to think small and iteratively.

As Lviv-based data scientist Aliaksei Rubanau told The New Stack, “It’s just agile IT wartime.”

He is the co-founder of an Eastern European decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) that in the last three days collected information about free spaces in western Ukraine and helped about 4,000 people take this first step in evacuation.

“Because of this effectiveness we decided not to do anything else, just keep this one task,” he said.

This DAO has been working to help mainly Belarusians get out since 2006. “My advice: keep it simple,” Rubanu advised. “Try to do one thing — choose, test, then full force on.”

If that first step works, he added, develop a procedure so it can be replicated.

Because 90% of his DAO’s membership works in tech — and thus has relative wealth — they don’t need to worry about creating and divvying up common funds, Rubanu said. This enables them to be more agile in individual responses to individual needs.

He advised New Stack readers who want to help teammates in war zones to “avoid common funds — this is the source of problems. Take on the part that you are able to finance yourself.”

Bianca Schobel, lead scrum master at Eurostar, the high-speed rail service, is a Romanian immigrant based in London. She told The New Stack that she is in constant communication with one current and one former team member in Ukraine right now.

“I actually focused on gathering the right amount of links and info to share from Romania, and keeping them informed on how to get help in my country,” Schobel said.

She had originally created a WhatsApp group that was just a way to keep in touch with old tech colleagues. In recent weeks, it has become a safe space for a Ukrainian friend to ask for help from friends from neighboring countries. This is yet another example of how a simple, low-bandwidth solution can become a single space for clear communication that allows for direct asks and responses.

Keep It Family First

Unlike the other companies we talked to, Softjourn, an IT outsourcing agency with offices in the western Ukraine city of Ivano-Frankivsk and in Warsaw, actually started creating a contingency plan for its 230 Ukrainian employees back in December — a two-pronged approach of voluntary relocation and evacuation.

The plan, according to Sergiy Fitsak, the company’s managing director, originally focused on company colleagues in eastern Ukraine, creating a separate communication channel in Telegram, with not only staff phone numbers but those of their families, too.

Softjourn offered its eastern and central colleagues to voluntarily relocate to central or western Ukraine or the Warsaw office, providing help navigating the bureaucracy and support with lawyers, schooling and housing. The company even started renting empty flats in Ivano-Frankivsk. But nobody really believed an invasion would happen.

So, the company asked its eastern and central Ukrainian colleagues about relocation again after the holidays. “Some said ‘Yes, but maybe in a month, maybe two weeks,’ still hesitating,” Fitsak said. “Even on the 22nd, 23rd of February, it was like ‘Not now.’”

If Russia invaded, the company thought, it would just be the eastern part of Ukraine. But then, on Feb. 24, the Ivano Frankivsk International Airport was bombed.

“We understood that we underestimated the risks,” Fitsak said. “It was a shock for everyone. During the first day, it was a total mess in our heads. It was really difficult just to understand what to do, but still we decided.”

Soon every employee and their family members in Ukraine were added to that Telegram channel, which has become more of a broadcast channel, to make sure everyone can access information in real-time. Softjourn’s people partner department then became the direct communication channel to address individual employee needs — and nothing about work projects.

“They called each person, understood their plans and how they’re feeling,” Fitsak said. “Immediately, we understood how many people would be evacuated to our city, our region or out of Ukraine, and how many family members.”

For the 10 families who have arrived so far in Ivano-Frankivsk, other colleagues are working in shifts to welcome them. They’ve made kits including contact numbers, where to purchase food and where to shelter during bombing raids. For now, Softjourn’s efforts will focus on inner-country relocation, as it can take hours or even days to queue to cross borders.

With schools closed, the newest request is for private child care, even looking at a safer place within the office that’s protected from windows — because Fitsak’s colleagues are still really motivated to keep working.

“People want to help with everything and they agree to do everything,” he noted.

It’s a terrifying time, but Fitsak is also feeling empowered.

“What I’m feeling here, we have enough energy and power and anger to do everything,” he said. While almost everyone is still working, everyone in his company is also supporting the Ukrainian effort, from hacking Russian websites to transporting and making food to other volunteer opportunities.

As a manager, he says that his first task is obvious: “At the individual level, it’s important to be clear that each family is in a safe place. Only then can people do something, if they feel their relatives are safe and protected.”

And he calls on everyone, no matter where they live, to remind Ukrainian colleagues: “We are with you.”

How has your team helped out your colleagues in conflict areas? Share your experience and tips with @TheNewStack and @JKRiggins.

Featured image by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash.