· Features

Improvise, adapt, overcome: HR in the Ukrainian war

Julia Kyrianova drove a bus full of refugees through the Hungarian border

After the brutal invasion of Ukraine, HR magazine reporter Millicent Machell finds out how one of the country’s largest business groups used HR as a survival superpower

On 24 February 2022, Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

Smart Holding, an investment and production group based in Kyiv, was one of the many businesses based in the country to be thrown into crisis and CEO Julia Kyrianova found herself in a situation that no amount of planning could have prepared her for.

She says: “When the war started, I woke up to explosions near my house and with a lot of decisions to make.

“Some of our businesses were already occupied within the first 24 hours, particularly those in Kherson. Some of our plants and factories had to stop production and enter an emergency shutdown.

“I had to go through and find out what was happening to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.”

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Kyrianova also did not know where her staff were or whether or not they were safe.

“I wasn’t able to reach some of our senior management team, 10 of them were stuck in northern Kyiv, which was immediately occupied.

“In the first month, it was a mess because people were evacuating themselves in unpredictable ways; some people felt they had no choice but to flee without any warning. Some were evacuated by us, some we couldn’t reach.”

Amid all the chaos within the business, Kyrianova was dealing with the deep fear of living in a war zone.

She says: “There were three types of fear: the animal fear of what would happen when Kyiv was occupied, the fear for the lives of my family and friends, and the fear that I would have to leave and would have no home to come back to.”

She chose to evacuate her daughter, taking a bus to the Hungarian border.

“The bus driver was a man, and only women were allowed to evacuate because of conscription. So once we reached the border, the driver told us he could go no further.

“I turned my head and saw everyone’s fear and said ‘that’s okay, I will drive this bus’. After driving all night, that’s when I understood my life was in my hands.”

In the first month after the invasion, the group’s businesses were basically shut down, apart from some operations in unoccupied zones. Instead, efforts focused on identifying where staff were and how to evacuate them.

“We spent time setting up new offices in unoccupied zones and people who were relocated were able to stay in safe hotels that were rented in western Ukraine. About 95% of our staff stayed in Ukraine due to this,” Kyrianova says.

Read more: A mindful approach to refugee recruitment

Relocation was offered to staff in every role if they lived in an occupied territory or had already fled from one, eventually moving over 300 people. For those who did not want to relocate, a ‘back-up’ member of staff was assigned in case they were no longer able to work.

She explains: “A new centralised process was put in place to identify every person in every factory and store their status in a centralised database, through a ‘rule of five’.

“We broke our staff into groups of five. Each person had four people to contact if they needed to or if their situation changed.”

The firm also secured cash management systems by reissuing keys to staff and revoking access from those in occupied territories.

Kyrianova tried to retain as many employees as possible, adjusting payroll to pay more to those whose jobs become more dangerous or who took on others’ roles.

When the situation became untenable, for example during the Kherson counteroffensive in August 2022, the company offered staff the opportunity to quit with their salary paid until the year end plus the three months of pay required under Ukrainian law.

“This year we also started hiring new people,” she adds. “It may sound odd considering the situation but as employers, when you have a high turnover you need to recruit.

“The market is very tough and there is a brain drain in the country. But, on the other hand you can get some brilliant recruits because something happened to the businesses they were previously working for.

“You just have to persevere as the market is chaotic and unpredictable and you cannot say how long you can keep the employee.”

Smart Holding retained 96% of staff by the end of 2022. Out of those who left, 2% left to fight in the army.

At the start of the war, some senior colleagues worked at a temporary office in Greece, but by the end of 2022, the majority had returned to work in Ukraine.

Read more: What it's like to work in HR during the Ukrainian war

Kyrianova says the war brought a newfound unity to the business: “The whole of Ukraine at that time was like one person.

“In my entire time in management, I have never seen such a huge understanding and good spirit between colleagues. I had worse expectations of people. During a time when it was hard to stay in your right mind, people were loyal and caring.

“When I come to the office now, we hug each other, which never happened before. The business’ culture has changed.”

She is now living and working in Ukraine, which she believes is important to boost morale and unity.

She says: “You have to show by example. If 99% of people are in Ukraine, you as leaders must be in Ukraine.

“I am trying to spend as much time as possible talking to people and getting the team together to share what is going on. In emergency situations, the key is to communicate plans with staff openly and with transparency.”

As the war continues, Kyrianova will continue to press forward. She says: “A war is designed to leave you without a future. Leaders who can see the future and set goals and aspirations for their team are the only ones you can keep people around them.

“Goals in this situation have to be short term and achievable, but it is vital they exist. When a human being sees the future, they are alive.”