Perspectives from on the ground in Ukraine
Global Crises: Ukraine & COVID-19

EN members reconvened to continue their monthly discussions on the situations in Ukraine & Russia, and the latest developments on COVID. This virtual conversation included more than 12 members representing diverse industries. Executive Networks extends its sincere thanks to all who participated.

Perspectives from on the ground in Ukraine

Svitlana Miller, the U.S.-based founder of the EN-supported non-profit To Ukraine with Love, joined members during the opening portion of the call to report on what she saw on the ground the week prior when her team crossed the Polish/Ukrainian border to deliver supplies.

Major internal refugee crisis and widespread shortages: According to Svitlana, the population of Western Ukraine’s largest city, Lviv, has swelled to perhaps as many as 2 million souls. In peacetime, it is home to about 700,000 people. Shortages are widespread. “There’s no fuel. And they’re running out of unexpected things, like bedding, cutlery and dishware,” Svitlana said. “People fled Eastern and Southern Ukraine empty handed, grabbing only their children.”

General ‘peace’ in the west, but with fear: Svitlana witnessed no on-the-ground fighting in her travels through the western part of the country, but she did encounter bomb-damaged buildings and air-raid sirens. “People are going about their normal lives, going to work, standing in grocery lines and then you see a crater from a rocket right there a block away,” she explained.

Culture shift: “I grew up speaking Russian in Kiev,” Svitlana noted. “No one in Kiev wants to speak Russian anymore. Speaking Ukrainian everywhere took some getting used to.”

Employees who fled (or stayed behind) in Ukraine

The member on the call with the largest population of Ukrainian employees (800) had seen less than 10% of them flee the country. The company operates within Ukraine’s critical agricultural sector, so those with the ability to are continuing to work. “Of those that have left, we’ve identified about 30 as key to the business,” the member said. “We are considering suspending their contracts in Ukraine and giving them temporary ones at market rates for where they are now, with the expectation that they will return to Ukraine with peace.”

• Keeping tabs on those who have left: “We asked those leaving Ukraine to stay within the region, with preferred locales in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic,” one member said. “We’ve put them on temp contracts based on market conditions.” It’s a popular approach, with several other members noting that they’ve turned down requests from Ukrainian refugee employees to exit the region once they’ve been safely established outside of Ukraine. “We’re saying, ‘no, you’re safe, that’s the objective’ to employees who request to go stay with family in Italy or in Canada, for example. It’s the one area where we are being a bit strict.”

• Rewarding those who have stayed behind: One member expressed concern that her employees who stayed behind may begin to resent those who left, especially if market conditions in their new host countries equals a pay raise. Another member helped assuage those fears: “It hasn’t come up as an issue for us because we gave all employees a lump sum, whether they stayed or left,” the member explained. “Everyone is getting paid. We haven’t seen any tensions. In fact, some people have moved back into Kiev.”

Exiting Russia (or not)

One member on the call said that her company had recently announced that it is selling its substantially-sized Russian businesses, with the largest of them being sold to a group of local executives. “Many of the people will be retained by the new employer,” she said. “Some won’t be because the business will look a bit different going forward, but we are very sensitive to Russian legal pressure on headcount reduction.”

• Staying behind: Three members said their current intention is to “retain capabilities” in Russia because their businesses there are directly involved in key sectors supporting the health and survival of the civilian population: namely healthcare, education and agriculture.

• Severance packages: Among those on the call, no one had begun to offer severance packages to Russian employees, but several seemed headed in that direction. One member described her entire Russian workforce as “on garden leave.” Six months’ pay had been the most common severance in the marketplace prior to the conflict, but two members reported anecdotally hearing “8 to 12 months” as the new norm.

• Russian legal help: One member requested referrals for additional Russian legal resources. He (and several others on the call) said they are currently using Baker McKenzie. If you have a legal referral please submit it to EN and we will share it with the requesting member.

Treating COVID like the flu (except in China)

Two members said their companies are moving toward dropping all vaccine and testing rules to work on site. Several others said they had reverted to “purely local guidance for all COVID-related matters,” with one adding that, “Some of our sites have begun treating COVID like any other infectious disease, like the flu.”

• Not so in China: “We have a huge workforce in China that is in lockdown,” one member said. “Shanghai has been shut down for two months.”

• Encouraging people to come back to the office: Most on the call reported that their office workers have returned at least part of the time. Ratios varied across market and industry, with some reporting better in-person working adoption than others. “We’ve made it purely optional to work in the office and our numbers are down at around about 20% on-site,” one member said. “That’s too low for us. We want people collaborating in person. We’re finding that we are having to put on events to attract them… Once they do come in for an event or two, they are more likely to keep coming back.”

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