My phone buzzed and the glow from the screen lit up my bedroom. “Check the news. Kiev.” And with that four-word text, a great test began.
It was close to midnight in early December. Still in the half-fog of sleep, I frantically scanned the Web. Thousands of protesters of all ages and walks of life stood shoulder-to-shoulder, holding flags and signs. This was half a world away. This was Kiev’s Maidan central square. This was Ukraine. And this was directly in front of the Kiev offices of TransGaming Inc., a Toronto-based developer of interactive entertainment.
An old Ukranian proverb says, “When you enter a great enterprise, free your soul from weakness.”
The resolve of our team in Ukraine and the commitment of our executives in Toronto would be tested in the coming months. No human resources textbook covers “political uprising” in the curriculum. There is no blueprint for best practices during a revolution. The truth was that the situation was potentially volatile and the future of our people was unknown.
The next morning, the executive team met to discuss the situation. At the time, protests were peaceful, and our local employees were providing assurances that the situation was stable. We agreed to monitor the situation while attempting to make contingency plans should things worsen. The calm, rational and methodical tenor of our C-suite was assuring: “Tell our people not to take risks, make sure that all emergency contact information is up to date for our entire team there, ensure that they stock up on bottled water and canned food should they find themselves blockaded at the office for a few days.”
There was discussion about equipment inventory, looking for alternate office space, and assessing remote work access, but the primary focus was on our people and their welfare.
On the Kiev side, we were receiving updates from our local site manager, Iryna Reznik. Staff were required to make their way through throngs of people and blockades each day to get to work. Our offices were located in a government building that was occupied by protesters and our team would shuffle past people in sleeping bags lining the hallways and camping just outside our door. Once in the building, the chanting, music, speeches and general hubbub of history happening just outside their windows was ever present. Our team stayed focused. They reported to work and contributed the same way they always had. “It’s the way it works in Ukraine,” Ms. Reznik said during one of our daily calls.
As we tried to make preparations for a possible escalation, we soon realized that it was impossible. No truck could make its way into the square to get our offices moved. Any attempt by our staff to move equipment manually might be seen as looting or be dangerous for them as a possible target for theft. We hoped for the best.
The situation soon grew more grave. Kiev was on fire. Our office and people were in the centre of terrifying violence. As the mayhem escalated, Ms. Reznik instructed all employees to vacate the premises immediately. The fact that our team was continuing to report to work until the frantic last seconds of revolution humbled us all.
Our information technology team in Toronto came forward to help assess risks and limitations, and provide solutions and resources for the interim. Our project management team in Tel Aviv contributed to drafting timelines and allocating resources and looked for ways to offset any shortages.
Our Kiev team made their way home that day on foot, as all subways in and out of the centre had been shut down. Shortly, news would follow that the fourth and fifth floors of our building in Kiev were engulfed in flames.
Our Toronto and Tel Aviv teams worked quickly to keep business running as usual and ensure that there was no ripple in development or timelines. Kiev employees would operate remotely from their homes while we found a new location.
Several of our developers in Kiev were flown to Tel Aviv to work temporarily because they could not work from their homes in Ukraine, and Canadian employees suggested bringing people here. In the middle of rubble, our company values were shining through: respect, innovate, take personal ownership, achieve results, collaborate.
Our executives remained steadfast in their commitment to our people. Communication followed from all levels within our company to our Kiev team: commending them on their courage and commitment, providing encouragement and support, and letting them know that, despite the uncertainty they faced, they remained part of the Transgaming family.
What we learned:
Values are lived, not posted. “What do you need?” and “How can we help?” were never mandates. Company culture makes itself most known in moments of crisis. If you plant the seeds properly, and hire the right people judged against those values, they will bloom when it rains.
Employees make the commitment daily. Our Kiev team made the commitment through blockades, riots, transit shut downs, while facing personal uncertainty in their own security. That isn’t retention, that’s character.
Our investment in remote work technology meant that our greatest resource – our people – could be protected and productive even if the office became ash. Smart companies know that currency is intellectual capital, the rest are bricks that can be replaced.
Communication is everything. Skype, Google Chat, e-mail, text messages, and video were all part of our daily crisis-management response. We are wired to support each other. A turn in history across an ocean felt as though it was next door.
News about the situation in Ukraine changes daily. Our global team has never worked better together. Trust and camaraderie emerged from loss and crisis.
Another Ukrainian proverb stands true: “A thread from all over the world makes a shirt for the naked.”