How Ukraine’s Remote Workforce Is Adapting After Leaving

YouArthur Lavrinovich saw bright lights from his Nova Kakhovka apartment window, in the middle of the evening. He saw the orange flashes, felt the rumble of shaking foundations, saw “shining darts like shooting stars” fly over his city and erupt into pillars of smoke. After grabbing his documents and getting in the car, he picked his mother up from her house. At 4:30 AM, they were driving at over 170 miles per hour, crossing many wheat fields, and fleeing the Romanian border. Lavrinovich still had gas left.

“I always thought of myself as a brave heart, as a person that laughs in the face of fear,” he says. “But we were crying the entire way to Romania, and the reason why I’m not crying now is because there are no tears left here, no emotions.” Instead, having secured an apartment with his mother in the town of Kavala, Greece, Lavrinovich is keeping close watch on the situation at home while channeling energy into his work as chief brand and development officer for a small software company based in Canada. “Now I’m working twice as hard or three times as hard as ever, because we have a responsibility,” he says. By keeping the company going, he believes he’s helping ensure that his colleagues have jobs waiting for them. “We have to work for our brothers and sisters left behind,” he says.

There are at least 200,000 software developers based in Ukraine; the country awards around 20,000 tech degrees per year according to the IT Ukraine Association, and it is one of Europe’s most popular locations for outsourcing developer work. It also hosts a large number of highly skilled workers such as Lavrinovich, who work for foreign firms. Well before the pandemic made remote work a norm, Ukrainians—especially those in the tech sector—were contracting with global enterprises, often through freelancer-connecting platforms like Upwork or Fiverr. However, Russia is continuing its attacks on Ukrainian cities. Many people are being conscripted to military service, and those who can flee are trying to escape.

Some businesses that are able to work remotely with Ukrainians want to assist. SmartMatchApp employs around a dozen developers from Ukraine, including Lavrinovich. Priority is to get workers to safety and to their families as quickly as possible, but to continue to pay all salaries even if work stops. Lavrinovich claims that at least one friend was dismissed from his U.S.-based position after the conflict.

Learn More The Digital Battlefield of the Russia-Ukraine War: How Telegram Became Telegram

An ocean and a continent away in Montreal, Canada, Lavrinovich’s boss, Tim Mourtazov, watched events unfold in late February while trying to calm his colleague over the phone during the long drive to Romania. Mourtazov was the founder and CEO. He had previously worked with Lavrinovich through Upwork, an online platform that lists remote workers from Ukraine. (Upwork declined to share specifics of its workers’ geographic distribution.) Lavrinovich now serves as his right-handman. The software is used by professional matchmakers to manage customer lists and serves thousands of customers. “It happens to be that he’s from Ukraine. Most of our partners, and most of our developer team, are also in Ukraine,” he says. Many are in Kremenchuk, a city in central Ukraine, which—although not currently targeted by Russian attacks—has recently seen an influx of refugees from the front lines.

“Nobody can work normally. Arthur. He was the one that escaped from this pitiful place. Arthur began to immediately call everyone, asking them to leave to take care their families. And since then, every single day—every single day—we have been sending them money,” Mourtazov says. “We will continue to pay salaries as long as needed, and as long as we can.” SmartMatchApp is also providing extra emergency funds to workers who are attempting to leave with their families and raising money through an online fund.

Mourtazov says that “one by one” their team members or their families are relocating out of Ukraine when possible: the CTO and his family are safely in France, one designer is with her children in Italy, and one developer sent his family to Greece as well. However, the mandatory conscription laws for men between 18 and 60 years old require them to stay in the country so they can serve as military personnel. Lavrinovich says his colleagues are still in daily contact and as safe as can be expected—for now. “They’re scared and afraid to step outside of their homes,” Lavrinovich says, “listening to loud sirens for six hours per day, running to a shelter after each and every alert.”

SmartMatchApp client Maria Avgitidis, a New Jersey resident, is also supporting the Ukrainian team. Avgitidis, the CEO of Agape Match dating site, is an avid SmartMatchApp user who has also worked closely with Lavrinovich. She followed Lavrinovich’s harrowing WhatsApp updates as he drove to Romania and then sent him life-changing advice: head to the small seaside town of Kavala in northern Greece, a community of displaced Greeks who share many Ukrainians’ Orthodox Christian religion, where her family was also from. She said that he and his mother would be welcomed there.

They did. Lavrinovich joined a Zoom Call from Kavala, where he and mom had set up temporary housing. With his hands over his face, he describes—in painful detail—the feeling of fleeing; the bombs brightening the sky over the freeways; the way the Romanian border guards looked the other way at his incomplete documentation during their evening crossing of the Danube River. Lavrinovich knows he’s deeply fortunate: just thirty minutes after they left Ukraine, martial law requiring mandatory conscription was put into place. And now, situated in Kavala, he’s back to work, driven to keep the business functioning while his compatriots can’t. “We will have a country to rebuild after this,” he says. “We need to support everyone. It’s a responsibility. There’s no other word to describe this.”

Learn More: ‘I Have No Other Choice.’ The Mothers Returning to Ukraine to Rescue Their Children

It is difficult to balance the demands of running a business that has many people in war zones with your ability to stay focused while also being able recognize and adapt to these situations. “I don’t know how I can go to bed knowing that our teammates are suffering,” Mourtazov says. Mourtazov says that the company is reducing its offering. No new features or plans for spring were made.

This is an issue for Avgitidis as a client. Mourtazov has worked with her to devise a plan for how they can solve work-related problems without having to call in the team. This has made it clear how fragile and uncertain life can sometimes be. “The difference between me and Arthur is luck. Right?” she says. Their shared lives and their luck are only increasing now that Lavrinovich, who is based at Kavala where she is from, is there.

For Lavrinovich, his escape to safety hasn’t meant a respite from the reality back home. Lavrinovich feels obliged to maintain the company’s viability for the benefit of his fellow workers. “We keep the company running and operational, we keep this boat afloat,” he says. “And we hope for better days. Because without hope, there is no purpose.” At least, for now, he has both.


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