How Ukrainian HR is working through war

People Management speaks to practitioners on the ground to find out what they and their organisations are doing to keep their people safe and supported

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Within hours of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s 24 February dawn time announcement that he was launching a “military operation” in Ukraine, Maryana Kiverska, HR manager at Impressit, a Ukraine-based digital agency, was on the phone with her boss, co-founder and CEO Roman Zomko, discussing how best to provide safety for, and communicate with, their staff.

On that call, as well as on other calls with leadership team members – conversations backdropped by disorientating news of missiles striking across the country, as well as updates on Russian troops and tanks entering Ukraine across multiple border locations – it was agreed that tools would be downed for the first 24 hours and Impressit’s management would try and get the workforce to reconvene later that evening on Zoom.

As Zomko tells People Management, HR was central to their agreed-upon priorities: “I gave the mission to our HR manager to go one by one through everyone [on that first all-company call] to make sure they are fine [as] we kept track of who joined.” With about a dozen staff members missing from that check-in, it would be Kiverska’s job to follow up and check that they were as okay as they could be.

Yet Kiverska had no administrative function. In the first week or so, as the initial shock of invasion subsided and Impressit had to figure out a way to manage working in a war, the business had to figure out what being flexible meant, with a ‘do what you can’ approach to work taken. In addition, Slack channels were repurposed to become read only so crucial messaging could be shared. The importance of continuing to work, to ensure both business and job security and to keep money flowing into Ukraine, was impressed upon staff. Here, it is obvious that HR had a central role.

Other tasks involved offering accommodation and relocation expenses, as well as logistical support, to staff who needed it and could take it. Later down the line, people-focused tasks would involve ensuring that the two Impressit employees who were conscripted had bulletproof vests, helmets and tactical equipment. Worst-case-scenario payouts from the business also had to be sorted out for their families.

For the recently displaced Uliana Pavlovska, HR director at WePlay Holding, an e-sports business, the outbreak of war has, similarly to Kiverska, resulted in tweaking and expanding HR’s usual remit to become more attuned with the needs of people management in time of war. At WePlay, that has meant the HR lead having regular one-on-one chats with colleagues as well as retaining the services of a therapist for staff. She’s also rolled out information on how to keep comms safe and practice first aid, as well as changing payroll to remunerate staff up front by up to two months.

WePlay’s HR team also paused employee cuts, guaranteeing to keep the employee numbers the same as what they were at the outbreak of the invasion. They also kept roles open for staff who were scheduled to join after 24 February. Similarly, she’s been involved in helping source ammunition and military gear for, as well as keeping paying the salaries of, staff who were called up to either territorial defence forces and the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Pavlovska adds that it’s a time that has been, unsurprisingly, highly emotional. “It’s hard to come to terms with the new reality. But here we are – holding on, learning to live and adapting to today’s realities, and, of course, waiting for victory. Of course, the work format has changed, and this has affected all internal processes and interactions. But people have always been, and remain, our first priority. Therefore, we are focused on making the employees of WePlay Holding feel that they are not alone in the face of this disaster and reality. Now more than ever, we must stick together. It is very important for our folks to have a sense of stability – and we try to give it to them,” she explains.

Yet, providing stability isn’t straightforward. “Most of the processes we used to manage and support are now on hold. We have had to refocus and adapt to the new format and workflow very quickly,” Pavlovska adds, noting that the HR team providing support to staff are also made up of individuals who have had to leave their homes and leave loved ones behind. “This puts everyone under a lot of stress. But at the same time, our task is to support not only ourselves but also other employees of WePlay Holding. This is perhaps the most difficult part. I try not to panic – it won’t be helpful at all right now. But I do feel anxious about the future: considering the reality we live in, it’s perfectly understandable,” she continues.

Despite these challenges, Pavlovska believes that HR, especially HR based in the country where the war is happening, is “absolutely” well-placed to support and help its employees. “We at WePlay Holding think of ourselves more as people partners than HR. Because we are first and foremost partners, ready to help each other. So this wording reflects our work better than ever.” Of course, that “partnering” comes with added weight in war. As Ksenia Prozhogina, VP of people at 3DLOOK, a virtual fashion try-on business, which has 80 per cent of its staff in Ukraine, explains: “HR has definitely changed strategy [because of war]. We can’t focus on learning and development programmes as now we’re working on the safety and security of our employees.”

Some of HR’s remit as the war progresses past those initial moments, at least for Prozhogina, has been about attempting to provide guarantees for staff, alongside helping to move them to safer areas, with financial and logistical support alongside this. For the firm's VP, who was in Ukraine at the outbreak of the war but is now temporarily based in Warsaw, this has involved leading calls to show staff that they are delivering for clients and money is still coming into the business, and that they can continue ‘normal’ activities, such as hiring. “People are worried as [for those relocated] they want to come back home and I don't have an answer but we have meetings, daily meetings and weekly meetings and we are speaking about their future,” she adds.

Perhaps this is all HR can do when it is locked into the same position as its staff: doing what it can and keeping staff in the loop as much as possible, responding to their requests for help and information. It’s certainly an approach that Idris Arshad, people and inclusion at St Christopher’s hospice has learned the hard way. Arshad was supporting staff in Sudan in a previous role when fighting broke out in the country and was surprised when staff weren’t keen on taking up, among other more reactive and practical help they offered, the counselling HR rolled out. “Ask people what support they need, don't just assume what they need,” he says is the learning he took away from this.

However, he does believe that HR practitioners in Ukraine right now, despite going through a whole range of emotions, will be doing as much as they can for their people. “For some people, if you're not used to that [conflict] environment it can be a bit of a shock but [HR] will be thinking ‘what do we need to do?’. I think if it's happening in a place where you have relatives, or you have good friends in the workplace, it will affect you more…but there will be little time to think or feel. It will be more about the doing.”