A little over two months have passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which developed into a bloody protracted war. A substantial portion of Israel’s high-tech workforce consists of Ukrainians, some estimates putting their number at 15,000. Start-up managers in Israel have found themselves facing a situation they never imagined would happen.
Just like Ukrainians, many of whom believed that a war would not break out in the end, Israeli companies too quickly pivoted from complacency to making emergency plans just before the fighting began, only to discover that most of their employees were not interested in leaving Ukraine. When war did break out, massive evacuation was no longer practical, partly due to the ban on males leaving the country.
At this point, most companies are reporting that despite the prevailing chaos and massive destruction, with the country still engaged in fierce fighting, the vast majority of these employees are actually working as usual. In fact, one big issue is that some no longer like working remotely and actually wish to return and work from Kyiv, where their employers’ central offices are located. And yet, much has changed.
“Some 90 percent of our workers have moved to the western part of Ukraine. It cost us millions of dollars to evacuate them from the Kyiv area and move them, including payments for transportation, security and intelligence”’ says a senior official in an international human resources company that employs thousands of Ukrainians. “Employees have returned to almost full productivity, following which we’ve decided to resume our growth there.”
“Even people in Kyiv and other large cities in ‘red’ regions are working as usual. This industry is displaying a very impressive resilience. Right now, we’re wondering whether it’s time to re-open offices in Kyiv. Intelligence officials we work with don’t believe fighting will resume in that area, but there are still large amounts of munitions everywhere, and traveling there is not safe.”
Naturally, Ukrainian employees are experiencing emotional hardship because of the situation. “Being a refugee is difficult, but I haven’t encountered people whose spirit is broken,” he continues. “Some of them were in Israel for a while, and now they are returning. Others are in places like Georgia and Croatia, where they can live like kings on the salary of a Ukrainian programmer. But they all miss home and hope to return soon.”
Despite the difficult emotions, this official says that “there are rays of hope, something you couldn’t have said one month ago. They’re starting to imagine the day after the war, how they’ll rebuild the country. Foreign hi-tech money is expected to help in rebuilding Ukraine.”
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First war, then growth
“The war made us change strategy,” says a senior official in another manpower company, which has worked with Israeli high-tech companies and hundreds of Ukrainian program developers for years.
“Before the war we had offices in several countries in eastern Europe, and we were considering expanding. When war broke out, we looked into locations in which we could open new offices. But lately, in the wake of the war and the coronavirus pandemic, we decided to forgo opening new offices and move to a model of remote working.”
In order to realize this new strategy, the company signed an agreement with an international company that operates co-working space, allowing its employees to work at the company’s branches in any location they exist. “Furthermore, instead of the benefits we’d give employees who went to an office, now the benefits are given online. These include language lessons, yoga lessons on Zoom, or remote psychotherapy.”
Just like other companies, this one has started using the services of an Israeli payments service company in order to deal with the new situation in which employees are scattered across the globe and can work from anywhere. “We built a business playbook, managing the employment of Ukrainians anywhere in Europe or outside the continent, so that they can submit a request for citizenship if they’re interested in doing so. For our Israeli customers, this is a conceptual change, and we’re all learning how to manage the new situation.”
This official says that most Ukrainian men who worked for the company left their homes and are now in western Ukraine. A small number, just over ten employees, are actively engaged in combat. “Luckily, 90 percent of our customers – hi-tech companies – are continuing to pay these combatants their salaries.”
At the beginning of the war, says Ofer Karp, a senior engineering VP at WalkMe, the company parted ways from an outsourcing company it used, with the aim of establishing an independent brand in Ukraine and doubling their workforce to 80 employees. This plan is still on the table. “As soon as things stabilize, we’ll return to our plan. In that respect, nothing has changed.”
“Most of the workers have returned to full-time work,” says Karp. “Two thirds of them are in Ukraine, one third are in Poland, Moldova and Slovakia. They are trying hard to work as usual and convey a sense of business as usual. We allowed people who wanted to move to Lviv, in western Ukraine, to do so, opening new offices there. Before the war, employees were concentrated in Kyiv. Two weeks ago, employees approached us and asked if they could return to work in Kyiv, and a few did go back. We’re looking into this but in any case, our building there is still closed.”
“We’re continuing to recruit in Ukraine,” says Dana Harduf, VP of global human resources at Logz.io, a company developing software for identifying and locating problems in cloud-based organizational systems. “The number of our employees there grew from 15 to 18. It sounds absurd, but since the war broke out the number of people starting their selection process for joining the company has risen significantly,’ she says.
“Even before the war began, we offered employees to relocate to Budapest with their families, but no one wanted to move. This was true until the invasion began. We had a cool office in downtown Kyiv. Right now, we don’t know exactly what condition the building is in. At the beginning of the war, employees fled, most of them settling in rural areas in western Ukraine. Six of them managed to leave the country and reach Poland, Hungary, Switzerland and the U.S. Now, all of them are working remotely, with work constituting a significant anchor in the chaos surrounding them.”
Before the war, there were discussions over whether to bring employees to Israel. “Some of them were enthusiastic, but most of them weren’t. They looked for something closer to home, so they could return more easily. Moreover, Israel is very expensive. It’s not reasonable to keep entire teams here for long periods.”