How One Company Is Assisting Its Employees in Ukraine

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. March 2, 2022
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A map of Ukraine with its flag superimposed on it

Vladimir Gendelman is the founder and CEO of Company Folders Inc., a commercial printer specializing in business presentation folders. Gendelman was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and his Pontiac, Mich.-based company employs a team of software developers, graphic designers and quality assurance engineers in Ukraine, many of whom have been with the company for more than a decade. He spoke to SHRM Online about his company's efforts to keep his employees safe and provide for their needs during this crisis.

What experience have you and your company had managing employees in conflict zones?

When the war broke out in Ukraine in 2014, our team was based in Donetsk, the epicenter of the conflict. Through a combination of financial assistance and constant communication, we were able to get every team member out of the conflict zone and into a safe place within Ukraine. 

About how many employees does Company Folders Inc. have in Ukraine?

Seven.

Have some of your employees moved within Ukraine to safer regions than Kharkiv and if so, what has that entailed? Have others remained in Kharkiv? Have some moved to other countries? 

One employee was in Lviv and was able to cross the border to Poland last Friday, before the declaration of martial law. 

Of the four employees we had in Kharkiv, one was able to get a ride with a friend to Poltava, which is about 100 miles away. The other three are essentially trapped in Kharkiv at this point. It's not safe to go out, even if they could find transportation out of the city. So, they are crammed into whichever room in their small apartments doesn't have windows, listening to rockets and shots being fired. They can feel the ground and the building shake. And they are terrified.

One of our employees lived near a strategically important bridge in Dnipro. Based on our advice, he left there to go to his sister's home, well away from the area. The next day there was a diversion to blow up that bridge—he was really lucky to have gotten out in time. 

And one of our employees is in Nikolaev, which is directly in the path of the Russian invasion from the Black Sea. He has elderly parents who can't travel, so he's chosen to stay there with them.

Has work been suspended anywhere in Ukraine during the conflict? If so, how will the company go about determining when it is safe to resume? If not, how is work that is continuing in safer parts of Ukraine a means of distracting from conflict?

All software development operations have been suspended because the developers are in Kharkiv and unable to work. Most of them don't have Internet. And they're not mentally in a position to work because they're under attack. Our graphic designers are not in Kharkiv, so when they have Internet, they are able to do client work. People tend to want a stabilizing force in their lives when it's chaos all around them. In 2014, our staff was very glad to be able to get back to work as soon as possible and we were able to resume normal operations within a couple of weeks. Currently those who are not under attack and are able to work are happy for the distraction.

How can a remote team be managed in a conflict zone?

Establishing multiple lines of communication is very, very important so if one goes down, you can stay connected. Most lines of communication are through the Internet, so we also make sure we have everyone's phone numbers in case the Internet fails so we can call people directly. It's also key to keep the whole team connected with each other so they can help each other out. One of our team members lives in a 10th-floor apartment, which is very dangerous. He moved in with another team member who lives in a second-floor apartment and has easier access to the basement. 

It's very important to understand that in the conflict zone, you have to provide more support than usual. It's important to know that they may not be able to work because of physical limitation such as lack of electricity or Internet or because they're not in the right frame of mind, and we do our best to provide moral support to help them stay strong. No matter how bad it gets, it will be over at some point.

What are some communications tools to stay connected?

We are using Slack, WhatsApp, Skype, Telegram and Facebook Messenger so that if one goes down, we may still be able to communicate via another.

How can those who want to help assist staff in Ukraine?

Other team members can reach out directly to reinforce that you're thinking of them, sending thoughts and prayers, and to see if there's anything you can do to help. Maybe you can take on some of their work and let them know so they can be more relaxed and under less stress and know you really have their backs. Potentially, you could even help babysit their kids via Zoom, even if it's only 10 to 20 minutes at a time. In their small apartments, kids are going crazy from boredom—maybe you can get on Zoom with those kids and talk to them in English or teach them. If they do speak English, read them a book—it changes the scenery, changes the environment. Maybe connect your kids and their kids to watch a movie online. The more you communicate with them, the more you learn what would help them, and what they would need. 

How is the company supporting Ukrainian staff to ensure safety for them and their families?

We consulted with a former U.S. Army colonel for advice on military tactics and likely strategic targets so we could look at the map and see what was more dangerous or less dangerous for our employees. And we've been sharing that information with them and providing any assistance we can to move them away from more dangerous areas.

We know from experience things will probably get worse, that the banks might stop working and that it will be harder if not impossible to get food. So, we sent extra money to those who needed it and advised everyone to stock up as much as possible on food, which was crucial because now it is not at all safe for them to go out. 

What other assistance might be provided?

The things we are doing are staying in constant communication, reinforcing strongly that we support them; that this will not affect their employment in any way, shape or form; reinforcing that they will be paid throughout this time whether they can work or not; seeing if they need any additional money. One of the things that could be done is sending an advance on the next paycheck or two in case the banking system fails so they can have a bit more money. And we make sure that, if they need to relocate, we help them get up and running again so they can work.

How can remote operations be kept stable during conflict?

It depends on employee safety wherever they are and whether they have electricity and Internet. If they're safe and operational, then operations for that employee are stable. But currently, our whole development team is without Internet and is in no mental state to do anything because they're under attack—so right now software development operations are nonexistent.

How can a company help employees cope with conflict if they are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression? 

Arrange for a therapist—either local to where they are or a therapist online—and give those people room to do whatever they need to do to get back to normal. Although PTSD is a serious disorder that requires professional help, staying in touch and providing a personal connection during this crisis can help mitigate some mental health struggles.

What kinds of contingency plans can be created to plan to resume operations?

We use project management software, which lists all assigned tasks, so they know what needs to get done and who it's assigned to. We're holding off on adding new projects for now and reassigning what can be reassigned to other staff. But when anyone can work, they have a list of tasks assigned to them and they can jump right in and start knocking them out. Everyone's spread out in different locations, so most likely it is not going to be a unified process of getting back to work—everyone's on their own schedule about that. 

What's the big picture? 

The big picture is this: Try to put yourself in the mindset of people who are stranded in a conflict zone and try to think of it from their perspective. Think of what would help you in a situation like that. Do that for your people and allow for the chance that you have not considered everything, so whatever they ask, give them the benefit of the doubt and give them what they ask for. This is your time to serve them.

How can you help?
The International Committee of the Red Cross remains active in Ukraine, saving and protecting the lives of victims of armed conflict and violence. Its neutral and impartial humanitarian action supports the most vulnerable people, and your donation will make a huge difference to families in need right now. Donate here.

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