For Oyster CEO Tony Jamous, the crisis unfolding in Ukraine is personal. He spent the first decade of his life in Lebanon, where he learned "firsthand how devastating [war] can be for people," he told HR Dive in a call from Cyprus, where he relocated last August after years in Silicon Valley and London. "I feel very connected to the children in Ukraine right now emotionally," he said.
Oyster, a global employment platform that manages HR for companies with international employees, serves between 450 and 500 employees across the globe — with "10s" of them in Ukraine. "When this crisis broke, we had to put together a crisis team that jumped on the challenge and put together an action plan," Jamous said.
As the platform works to respond to employees' needs, Jamous took a few minutes to tell HR Dive what workers on the ground are asking for and how remote employers can help.
Communicate that safety is No. 1
More than anything, workers need to know the company prioritizes their safety above all else. "It's not OK to make people feel like their life does not matter," Jamous said. "This is really important because it creates life-long PTSD and long-term emotional issues."
Check in with employees in the conflict zone and let them know the company is aware of the situation, is monitoring it and that their needs are being prioritized. Remind them that their personal safety is of utmost importance and that work falls much further down the list. Understand that war is a trauma and employees will be in a variety of life-altering situations.
"It is a time to be more human-centric," Jamous said. Check in regularly and stay up to date on workers' statuses and needs. Keep in mind that emergencies and technological issues may result in gaps in communication on workers' end.
Provide relocation assistance
After ensuring employees' safety, HR should check on employees' relocation needs. Many Ukrainians are fleeing the war zone, particularly women and children. (Men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been ordered to stay in the country.)
Relocation support can include visa sponsorship, assisting with the immigration process, providing temporary or permanent housing accommodation, helping refugees register for local healthcare services and helping them to open a local bank account. Employers might work with Airbnb, for example, which is offering free, short-term housing for up to 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine — a service it also provided in the past for refugees from Syria, Venezuela and Afghanistan.
Visa, a company with about 155 employees in Ukraine, has "hired security firms and shuttle buses" to shepherd workers out of dangerous areas. Leaving has become harder, with Russia penetrating deeper into the country and Ukrainian checkpoints set up to ensure male citizens are not among those fleeing. Still, as of March 11, the UN estimates that more than 2.5 million refugees have fled the country.
Visa employees are mainly landing in Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Romania. Where workers end up is an important aspect in determining their future opportunities and access to support, Jamous said.
"You're going to [want to] think about compliance: When they land, do they have the right to work there? Do they have to apply for a work permit?" Jamous said, noting there are a number of countries that offer workers the right to work without any specific procedures. Oyster is working with governments to accelerate immigration processes, he said.
Ensure money is "not an issue"
HR should do everything it can to ensure payments are not interrupted and employees are able to access their money. Advancing paychecks can give employees some extra support. "As [people] escape from a war zone, [they're] gonna have additional expenses," Jamous said. "You don't want them to worry about money at the same time. Worry about saving their life."
Bank functions are likely to be spotty, complicating matters. About a week before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, multiple government and banking services were hit with a cyberattack, resulting in workers being temporarily unable to access bank accounts. While cyberattacks have been limited so far, more attacks are likely in the future.
In addition to disruption from cyberattacks, "Payment providers may shut down local currency payment to Ukraine and Russia," Jamous pointed out. (Goldman Sachs recently announced it was pulling out of Russia.)
"As organizations increasingly become global and hire in a distributed way, there are going to be challenges like this that are going to emerge."
CEO of Oyster
Oyster's crisis team is "working to provide alternative payment methods and payment options that can run payments locally" to employees in Ukraine and Russia, Jamous said. "It's not clear how this is going to happen. But we have to find a way to provide the funds … especially in Russia, as countries start disconnecting from the global SWIFT network," he said. "We're just getting ready to build this payment infrastructure that can deliver this human critical service — salaries."
In a blog post Oyster wrote on helping workers in Ukraine, the company also mentioned routing payment to an international entity other than Russia or Ukraine and paying employees in U.S. dollars, euros or British pounds.
Provide "generous" time off
It may seem obvious given the circumstances, but workers should be given as much time off as needed to deal with their situation. "Make sure that work is not an additional reason they have stress right now," Jamous said. Safety, logistics, and access to healthcare and other benefits should all be prioritized.
Some employees, especially once settled, may want to work. For those getting back to work, flexibility is key. This can include "shifting hours, reallocating tasks, changing priorities, or all of the above," Oyster noted in its blog post. "It's important for us as people leaders to remain nimble in how we're taking care of your Ukranian workforces and adapt as the situation and their needs evolve."
Provide access to mental health resources
Finally, remember that the situation unfolding in Ukraine is likely to have traumatic effects on those experiencing it. Providing access to counseling is one way to help employees manage their mental health. Oyster partners with Plumm Health, which connects workers to therapists and also offers online courses and meditation.
Employers should strongly consider offering such a service to all employees — not only those going through a global crisis — as compounding stressful news and life events are taking a widespread toll on workers' mental health, Jamous noted.
While the current situation is asking HR managers with workers in Ukraine to stretch and perform tasks that may not have been in the job description, "I think this is an opportunity for HR professionals to really showcase why they're there and why their function is important," Jamous said.
"As organizations increasingly become global and hire in a distributed way, there are going to be challenges like this that are going to emerge," Jamous said. "Obviously, it's more challenging. But it's [also] more rewarding, because of the access to that diversity, and the ability to create opportunities for these people that they wouldn't have had before."