SVE NEWS & FRANCE24.COM Sharing Series — ‘You need to be focused and productive’: Ukraine’s tech workers face power cuts

People in a cafe checking their phones and laptops by candlelight during a scheduled power outage in Lviv, Ukraine, on November 24, 2022.People in a cafe checking their phones and laptops by candlelight during a scheduled power outage in Lviv, Ukraine, on November 24, 2022. © Yuriy Dyachyshyn, AFP

Ukraine’s tech sector has been able to continue almost as normal since the war started in February, but widespread electricity cuts are posing a new logistical problem. FRANCE 24 speaks to tech employees working with limited power supply. 

Kseniia is standing near the window in her parent’s home in a small town in eastern Ukraine, trying to get internet signal. At the moment she has access to electricity for about three hours per day. When there’s no supply, she can still get online using mobile data if she’s standing in the right spot. “But when there is a complete blackout, then the mobile network disappears as well,” she says.

Last week she spent four days without electricity, heat or running water. Then, on Friday, services resumed from 2-4am. “There was no sleep for me; I did everything that I could because I knew that, after that, there would be nothing the next day.”

When there is power, catching up on work tasks is a top priority. Kseniia works as an executive assistant at ELVTR, a virtual learning company founded in Ukraine, and relies on her phone and laptop to do her job. “I probably have eight power banks right now in my home and the first thing that I do is charge everything. Then, I do my best to work as much as I can.”

“You need to be really focused and you need to be really productive in a short span of time,” she adds. “I read a bunch of books on time management techniques, but nothing has taught me that much as this situation”

‘A major challenge’ 

Ten months of war in Ukraine has wrought havoc on sectors like agriculture and energy production, and drastically reduced the workforce. An estimated seven million people have been displaced internally and millions more have sought refuge overseas. The World Bank forecast that the Ukrainian economy overall would shrink 35% in 2022.

But Ukraine’s tech sector, which makes up 8.3% of the overall economy, has remained relatively unscathed. In the first half of 2022 Ukraine exported 23% more IT services compared with the previous year and contributed more than $1 billion in taxes and fees, according to the National Bank of Ukraine.

“It’s the only sector that still operates on something close to a pre-war level,” says Vadim Rogovskiy, co-founder of Ukrainian start-up 3DLOOK and partner at Geek Ventures investment fund. “It still generates a lot of export revenue and a lot of tech workers – even if they left Ukraine – still pay taxes, which is important.”

This is partly due to the inherent flexibility of many tech jobs – for most employees, a laptop and internet connection are all that’s required. In February, the team at EVLTR, 70% of whom are based in Ukraine, switched to working remotely. “All of our team were working from the bomb shelters. I can’t even say that the business on the whole was affected that much,” Kseniia says.

Ten months later, that is no longer the case. Recent Russian attacks have inflicted “colossal” damage on power-generating facilities, the head of Ukraine’s national power grid operator said on November 23. An estimated 50% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has been destroyed and electricity is now a limited resource.

In towns and cities around Ukraine, power cuts, which used to last for a few scheduled hours, now happen at random. There have also been total blackouts lasting for days at a time. For individuals – and companies – the new reality poses a major challenge. “No one was ready for it,” says Rogovskiy. “No one has ever experienced dealing with that before. We need to make sure that our workers have electricity, but also water, food, and heating – it’s a totally new level of challenge.”

‘You find out where the electricity’s going to be and adapt’ 

In Kyiv, Kseniia’s colleague Danylo works as a learning advisor – a job which normally puts him in contact with students and clients around the world via his laptop. He remembers the conditions in the office last winter were “warm. We didn’t even need to bring extra heaters.”

Lack of electricity and heat this winter has been a logistical challenge for the team. “The first two weeks of November were the most difficult because it was hitting our homes and the offices at the same time,” he says. “When we worked from our primary office there was uncertainty of when the light was going to go off.”

As work calls started dropping mid-conversation and the heating cut out the team had to relocate, often multiple times in the same day. “We tried working from cafes, co-working spaces, each other’s places … You find out where the electricity’s going to be for the next four hours and adapt to that,” Danylo says.

The company now has two offices in Kyiv – both with generators – so workers don’t have to rely solely on the grid. It’s still a little cold and the network can be unreliable, but “it’s more stable when it comes to electricity”, Danylo says. “We also have a couple of bigger power banks that you can connect to lightbulbs and extending our phone plans for more data was helpful.”

For the moment he can work, almost as normal from the office, and even maintain something of his former day-to-day with colleagues. He says, “we found a gym where there’s a generator, and we found cafes that prepare about five litres of filter coffee in advance. It’s not the best but it allows you to kind of maintain your normal routine.”

Danylo and his colleagues from Ukrainian start-up EVLTR working in one of the company offices, powered by an electricity generator, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on November 28, 2022.
Danylo and his colleagues from Ukrainian start-up EVLTR working in one of the company offices, powered by an electricity generator, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on November 28, 2022. © Dan Blanar

‘Going to work to live a normal life’ 

Yet prospects for the coming winter are worrying. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said coping with the lack of resources will require a feat of endurance. The World Health Organization has warned of life-threatening conditions for millions of people in Ukraine. Temperatures are expected to plummet to -20C in parts of the country.

Many tech companies, including ELVTR and 3DLOOK have set up “safe houses” for employees located either in western Ukraine, where electricity supply is more reliable, or in European countries. The idea is that workers can relocate to areas with more consistent energy supply in order to stay safe, comfortable and be able to do their jobs.

But, in reality, many workers want to stay put. “I would adapt as much as possible to stay where I am,” says Danylo. “My family is here, and I’m more mobile in the capital. If something doesn’t work in one place, I have alternatives like my friends, my family, my co-workers or different offices.” He and his colleagues joke that if it gets too cold to sleep at home, they’ll move into the office where its warmer.

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This is a solution that the CEO of Ukrainian start-up, Aleksandr Volodarsky, is already putting into practice. At one point during the height of fighting his company was offering to pay to evacuate workers from the eastern city of Kherson by car. “We just wanted our people to be safe,” he says, “but they didn’t want to go.”

For the coming winter he has changed tack and is trying to find local solutions such as co-working spaces with showers, and adding camp beds in the office. “Then people can go there to work and live a normal life in a heated place with electricity and water.”

Volodarsky’s role as the leader of a tech company has changed somewhat in the past nine months: “Before it was about crushing competitors or conquering the market, now it’s more about being empathetic to see how we can assist people,” he says. But this doesn’t mean lowering projections for his company. In fact, he has found his workers are more driven than ever.

His Ukrainian staff are especially motivated by initiatives such as donating profits to the Ukrainian army and, against a backdrop of hard living conditions, they are keen to celebrate small wins at work.

This is something that Kseniia can relate to. “Just by being in Ukraine, paying taxes and buying things from local businesses I’m helping the economy as much as I can,” she says. “When there is no peace, no light, no water, you really become more grateful for everything you do have, including your job.”

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Sources from: FRANCE24.COM

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