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What it’s like to work in HR in Ukraine during the war

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At Naftogaz, the national energy company of Ukraine, the day-to-day responsibilities of our HR department aren’t much different than any other 50,000+ employee organisation.

We implement organisational policies, oversee professional development and manage payroll as part of our normal duties.

As chief HR officer, I can say we had these fundamental tasks down to a science. That is, until February 24, 2022—when Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In such a scenario, most companies would simply close the doors and send staff home. Yet for a company responsible for keeping power on and homes warm for more than 40 million Ukrainians, this was not an option. 

Of course, we have had some training and crisis plans in place, as this wasn’t the first time our country has been attacked by our neighbours to the east.

But the size and scale of the invasion shocked not only us, but the whole world—and as a service vital to keeping Ukraine powered, it was essential that we continued our operations as close to normal as possible.


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We are now nearly three months into the invasion, and as a testament to the remarkable work the employees of Naftogaz have performed under such extraordinary services, I felt compelled to share some key takeaways from our experience — though we pray such trauma will not be experienced anywhere else soon.

 

Be prepared

While most countries aren’t subjected to the hostilities of a belligerent neighbour, every company across the world should be thoroughly prepared for crisis, including cyberattacks, national disasters, and be prepared for the worst.

In our case, while the global pandemic had familiarised our workforce to working from home, the war took this to another level.

As bombs began to explode, we quickly realised that there would be no access to our offices, with laptops and computers left on our desks, records and documents sitting in our cabinets.  

 

Act quickly and decisively

Any crisis manual will outline a plan for immediate first steps. In our case, this entailed approving an order for remote work and encouraging our staff to seek out the safe accommodation for them and their families.

In some cases, people moved towards quieter cities in western Ukraine, for others this meant crossing the border into Poland, Hungary, Romania or Slovakia.

For those that remained, workplaces were installed inside bomb shelters, including for executive-level meetings. We enacted simplified and expedited decision-making procedures which decentralised the process and enabled us to adapt to changing circumstances effectively and efficiently.

 

Overcommunicate

Identifying and communicating possible evacuation plans for employees and their families was fundamental. For uninterrupted internal communications, a messenger group was immediately established.

We also implemented a system whereby our employees would check in every two days. Sub-groups were rolled out for employees to report accidents, first aid inquiries and emotional support and a hotline for answering questions on issues related to HR, IT and security.

 

Continuity

As a vital service, we simply had no choice but to carry on. This meant communicating with our partners, continuing to transit gas through our network, dispatching teams into perilous war zones to repair broken pipelines and customer service to field incoming calls.

This required powering through fatigue from countless sleepless nights due to incessant air sirens and bombings, emotional duress stemming from devastating news about employees and their families suffering. Prioritisation and distribution of key tasks to available employees was also necessary to make sure deliverables were met.

 

Employee support

People under bombardment are understandably under considerable stress, which manifests differently in people. It is important to have the right leadership skills, training, and emotional intelligence to provide the most appropriate engagement.

Our staff were noticeably impacted both physically and emotionally—and their efficiency was less reliable as a result. Empathy was a critical ability for managers to gauge the mental wellbeing of their team and find the optimal approach to setting tasks and measuring progress.

 

A key task of HR is the ability to compensate staff in a timely manner—arguably even more so in times of crisis. Naftogaz employees were paid timely and were given one-time financial assistance such as support for evacuation and temporary housing.

Workers at facilities located in the combat zone received increased compensation for their heroic commitment to their jobs. Compensation systems have also been introduced for families in the event of an employee’s death due to hostilities.

Interestingly, war has a way of highlighting the true values of an organisation—and the profound importance of its culture. Certainly, planning, effective decision-making and quick thinking are important to a company functioning during a time of war, but so are compassion, empathy and all of the other unique facets that make us human. And for that, I am extremely proud of my colleagues at Naftogaz.

 

Olena Boichenko is chief HR officer at Ukrainian energy company Naftogaz