Companies step up help for Ukraine-based IT staff

Mar 09, 2022
Business ContinuityTechnology Industry

As the conflict has dragged on, focus has shifted from aiding evacuation to providing support for those remaining in-country.

“What would we do if Pennsylvania was surrounded by millions of troops?” asks Gunter Pfau, founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based Stuzo, says. “We’d want to get our team out of there as much as possible.”

Stuzo, a provider of loyalty and contactless commerce products and services for convenience store and fuel retailers, has more that 95 employees (about two-thirds of its staff) in the country, says Pfau, who emigrated as a boy from then-Communist Romania.

Pfau got the chairman’s okay on Super Bowl weekend to temporarily relocate Ukrainian staff members and their families to Poland, with the company paying for travel and accommodations for four weeks. By then, he hoped, “the matter would be addressed,” he says.

Thus far, 77 staff members have moved to either Poland or western Ukraine, further away from the fighting. Some have stayed because male Ukrainians have been mobilized to fight and can’t leave the country, Pfau says. All told, the company has now moved about 200 people, he says.

Activating contingency plans

Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance services, began working on a plan in mid-January and evacuated many employees and families before the invasion, says Abby Forman, director of public relations. Its Ukraine-based employees make up less than 15% of the development team, she says.

Company Folders Inc., a Michigan-based folder supplier, has seven employees in Ukraine, says Vladimir Gendleman, who was born in Kharkiv and emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. “Our first step was to try to help them leave the country,” he says, though only one was able to cross into Poland before martial law was declared. The company is working with a security consultant to help workers still in Ukraine avoid strategic targets. The company is using a combination of communication apps, including Slack, Skype, Telegram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, in case one or more go down, he says.

JustAnswer, a San Francisco-based online platform connecting experts with people needing professional advice, has 252 full-time staff in Ukraine, says Andy Kurtzig, CEO and founder. The company helped employees and families relocate to safer areas or out of the country, gave employees time off, and provided equipment ranging from backup diesel power generators to satellite phones. It also prepared multiple ways to pay employees and offered those who joined the army 50% of salaries on top of their military pay.

In mid-February, Montreuil, France-based Ubisoft, a video game developer, recommended that employees take shelter in a place they considered safe, says Heather Haefner, associate director of corporate communications. “The company has provided all team members in Ukraine with additional funds to help them cover exceptional costs and has paid salaries in advance to account for any potential disruption to banking systems,” she says. In addition, Ubisoft is providing housing in neighboring countries for teams and their families. The company also set up employee hotlines and an emergency communication system should infrastructures grow unstable, she adds.

Totango, a customer data company based in Redwood City, California, has 15 developers in Ukraine, according to Guy Nirpaz, founder and CEO. The company meets with them multiple times each day to check on their physical and mental well-being, he says.

Ukrainian companies, many of which have U.S. customers and technology partners, also took steps to minimize disruptions, says Konstantin Vasyuk, executive director of the IT Ukraine Association. When the U.S. government revealed Russia’s plans to invade, “92% of Ukrainian IT companies developed business continuation plans for this kind of event,” he says, with many moving workers to other countries in Eastern Europe or to western Ukraine. “When the invasion of the Russian army started, IT companies organized the evacuation of their people from central and eastern regions of the country,” he says. 

Business continuity takes shape

With no end to the war in sight,  companies are working to accommodate the new normal.

Totango’s 15 developers are part of an 80-person software engineering organization located primarily in Israel. Coworkers have stepped in to take the load off Ukrainian employees, Nirpaz says.

Grammarly, which was founded in Ukraine, secured backup communication methods and temporarily transferred responsibilities to team members outside Ukraine so its staff inside the country could focus on their own safety, says Sheridan Smalley, public relations manager at the San Francisco-based grammar-checking software company.

“The risk of an invasion was clear from the moment troops started to gather around the borders,” says Francis Martens, CEO of Exalate, which has 26 IT workers in Ukraine. “Make sure you get contingency plans in place when it is still possible—define triggers and corresponding actions; align everyone who might be affected and can help.”

Companies also say they are distributing IT operations more, including moving them out of Ukraine or Eastern Europe altogether.

“It pays to spread geographic risk, especially when working in emerging economies that could be potentially vulnerable to disruption,” says Michael Krusche, founder, CEO, and CIO of Krusche Company, a Munich-based IT outsourcing company with 70 IT workers in Ukraine.

IT leaders need to walk the fine line, however, between minimizing geographic risk and creating unmanageable complexity. “Nobody called the extent of this before it happened, and it is debatable if it would have been good business sense to take decisions on the unpredicted worst-case scenario that has unfolded,” Krusche says. “Taking an ultra-cautious approach to geographical exposure in the future, informed by these events, would likely lead to significant opportunity cost.”