Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February was a major historical event. But for our company, the war was personal. While our headquarters are halfway around the world in San Francisco, JustAnswer employs more than 300 people, about one-third of our workforce, in Ukraine. These humans fill critical roles not just in IT but also HR, finance, and other departments. Knowing our employees were in danger required immediate action to relocate people to safer locations.
Nearly a year later, while much of Silicon Valley is no longer talking much about Ukraine, our support continues stronger than ever and in new ways: from funding mental health centers and drone pilot schools to delivering diesel generators. Not only have we kept the lights on for our Ukraine employees, but we have also hired over 50 people there since this war started. Through all this, we have learned crucial lessons about life, business, and humanity that anyone leading a team through a stressful crisis could benefit from.
It’s standard advice in business to listen more than you speak. But doing so in real-life crises can be challenging, especially when time is critical. We pledged and provided immediate aid and began fundraising through our non-profit, the Arizae Foundation. And in the early days of the war, one of our ideas was to pay everybody a two-month salary advance. But our employees were concerned about recent bank account hacking, and their Ukranian hryvnias were devalued more each day. Our Ukrainian employees wanted us to pay them only 20% of their salaries, just enough to live on. They wanted us to keep the rest in U.S. dollars in a U.S. bank account until they needed it. It was the opposite of what we assumed, and it reminded us to listen and learn—whether it’s your employees or your customers.
Later, when I took my first trip back to Ukraine with my family in April, we remembered the importance of asking our employees what they needed. Rather than relying on our assumptions to inform the list of supplies we would bring, we asked employees for their specific wish list items. Surprisingly, many of these items could be found on Amazon, including body armor, drones, and night vision goggles.
Also, at the start of the war, we expected to receive (and honor) lots of requests for PTO, but the truth is most of the folks who had not been called up to fight yet, were eager to keep working—even when it meant doing so from an underground shelter. Even when things were closed and there was little else to do, our teams wanted to keep working on projects to stay occupied.
That being said, every day for those first few months, we sent two survey questions to our Ukrainian team members: Do you feel safe? Can you be productive today?
If an employee answered no, a member of our people operations team reached out to better understand why they answered that way. For example, someone might have said no because their family was located in Kyiv, and they were so worried about their family’s safety that they couldn’t be productive. Someone else might have said no because they were located in eastern Ukraine, and the internet was down. Our team would then take steps to get them the help they needed. We used this information to help them relocate or find a productive place to work, like a coworking space. We also used this information to establish new policies like paying for coworking space.
Explicitly asking our employees these two questions helped us quickly identify employees struggling with either of these issues and get them the exact type of help they needed immediately.
Being able to course-correct and pivot as needed is one of the fundamental keys to success in running any startup. You can deploy that same skill and mindset to managing employees in crisis.
In the Ukraine situation, regular communication with key decision-makers helped us stay nimble and adjust for decisions that needed to diverge from earlier plans. For example, in the first week of the war, our Executive team held daily check-ins with the manager in Ukraine, making decisions like funding relocation packages for Ukrainian employees in need.
Specifically, before the war even started, we had prepared a business continuity plan outlining what to do in the case of various threat levels. For example, right before the war, we identified which employees were located outside of Lviv or Uzhgorod (these were employees who were found in Kyiv or Easter Ukraine) and who may be in danger. We proactively contacted them to offer a relocation package to Lviv or Uzguhrod. None of them took us up on it before the war broke out, but after it did, they all took advantage of the relocation offer.
After the war broke out, we met to discuss whether we could expect anyone to be able to work. During these meetings, we decided whether to consider the next day a work day or give our entire Ukrainian office a paid-time-off day. We gave four days of paid time off the first few days of the war. Then, we gave everyone four days to use as they needed. Our decision for the office to go back to work was based on the survey results of whether the team felt safe and whether they could be productive.
These frequent check-ins with Ukraine management, finance, and our executive team enabled us to make decisions and act faster than during our business-as-usual times.
Another example of pivoting from the plan occurred when I arrived at the Polish border in April 2022 to bring supplies and humanitarian aid. Again, the thought was that refugee centers desperately needed aid and supplies. But by then, most of the people had come through the centers, and now, the many people who remained in Ukraine were the ones who needed help. So we shifted gears and brought these goods across the border to the people in Ukraine.
In the winter, as Russian attacks shifted to the country’s power grid, the need for power stations to charge devices and even space heaters and blankets became paramount. So that’s where we have been investing our resources and efforts.
The startup mentality of trying new things and pivoting on the fly when needed is an ideal approach to fighting a war and supporting your teams under siege.
Trauma affects not only the soldiers on the front lines but anyone living under the conditions of war, hearing the sirens, and learning about friends, family, and colleagues injured or killed in combat. Recently we lost a beloved member of our Ukraine team, a valued friend and colleague that made the war more real than ever. To honor him and give our employees space to grieve, we turned our regular company meeting into a memorial service, allowing those who knew him to express their feelings. In addition, we funded a bus to take our Ukranian employees to his memorial service in his birth city, giving them the space and support they needed to process this terrible loss.
We took this one step further and funded a new national mental health center that provides free therapy sessions to our employees and thousands of people in Ukraine impacted by this war.
As we mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have no plans to slow down our support for Ukraine employees and Ukraine itself. Indeed, we want to show support for our people there, but also because we believe the future of the free world depends on beating Putin back across the border. In the tough process of working with our Ukraine team members to keep them safe and support the country’s economy, we’ve come out stronger and wiser, ready to tackle whatever comes our way as a global company.
Andy Kurtzig is the founder and CEO of JustAnswer. Before founding JustAnswer in 2003, Kurtzig founded and later sold eBenefits and developed and sold ANSER while still in college. Kurtzig is also an angel investor and an active philanthropist with a passion for finding a cure for juvenile diabetes.