Working in a war zone: How Wix is keeping nearly 1,000 Ukrainian employees safe

The website builder is one of the tech companies with hundreds of workers in Ukraine, which is under attack by Russia

Ukrainians in Shehyni wait to cross the border into Poland on Feb. 25.
Ukrainians in Shehyni wait to cross the border into Poland on Feb. 25. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post)
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When Nir Zohar, president and chief operating officer of website builder Wix, puts his children to bed at night in Tel Aviv, he is left with an intense feeling of frustration.

He thinks about the hundreds of colleagues still in Ukraine and recalls the images of families huddled inside subway stations and bomb shelters as the Russian invasion of the country continues. But Zohar says there’s not much time to feel, only to act, as Wix works to help evacuate the nearly 1,000 workers who were based in the country before the conflict.

“You get caught up in the moment,” says Zohar, a former lieutenant commander for the Israeli navy, who has been at the company since 2007. “You don’t stop to think about how you feel about it. You have to do [what you have to do.]"

From Tel Aviv, where the company is based, Zohar has spent the past few weeks working with a team of 20 Wix employees, arranging flights and buses to evacuate employees and their families from Ukraine to Poland and Turkey. At the same time, the company is keeping tabs through regular communication via text, messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, and phone calls with about 500 workers who remain in Ukraine.

Wix is one of many tech companies that have staff in Ukraine, a technology hub that outsources IT talent and other tech services for many of the world’s businesses. Tech giants including Microsoft, Snap and Amazon-owned Ring have employees there devoted to functions across their businesses. Ukraine is also a place active with start-ups.

Wix’s move to redeploy staff to other countries amid the war illustrates the complexities facing many of these companies — from how to keep employees safe to what mode of communication to use, to the best way to pay workers. Wix also has to make sure relocated workers are set up to use local currencies, have a place to stay and are supplied with essentials.

“It’s crazy and unsettling,” Zohar says. “The people from Kyiv are [in] a scary situation,” he said about the capital of Ukraine, where Wix has an office. “They don’t see much most of the time, but they hear a lot of explosions and sirens.”

Wix said it has been making emergency preparations since early February when talk of the conflict became more charged. During the second week of February, the company offered about 45 “mission critical” employees, who work on current products and are vital to keeping the business running, and their families relocation services to Kraków, Poland, where Wix has a small office. The company booked their flights and set them up in apartments. A few days later, the company offered to help the remaining employees and their families relocate to Turkey.

Since then, Wix contracted bus companies to help evacuate people from Kyiv and Dnipro to western Ukraine, where the threat was less extreme, Zohar said. But the situation quickly grew complicated after Ukraine’s state border guard service prohibited men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country. Previously, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had encouraged citizens to volunteer to fight in defense of the country.

Zohar said thus began the “heartbreaking” separation of families, as men stayed behind and the wives and children sought safety elsewhere. Wix then said about 30 of its Lithuanian employees volunteered to drive 600 miles to the border of Poland to collect people, some of whom ditched their cars and crossed on foot. The greeting teams picked up the workers, who were then set up for the night to rest before the trip to Kraków. They received items such as food, blankets, diapers, SIM cards for their phones and cash cards. The effort is ongoing, Zohar said. Of the 500 employees who remain in Ukraine, 195 are in areas considered to be dangerous, according to data from Wix.

“The main focus is still trying to get people out,” Zohar said.

So far, Wix has not had problems with pay or communication, Zohar said, and it has paid some salaries in advance in anticipation of banking issues. The company also has set up an internal news website dedicated to updates and resources including mental health services, information about crossing the border, traffic updates, and emergency contact information for each country.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, Ring, video-gaming company Ubisoft, Snap, and editing and writing service Grammarly all said they’re trying to protect their workers in Ukraine. And Tampa-based software outsourcing company JetBridge said it has been struggling with the logistics of getting its 24 software developers out of Kyiv. It has also started paying its employees in Belarus in bitcoin amid the rising fear of sanctions.

“This is a bit of a sidestep or a step back to get paid in crypto, especially with the volatility,” CEO John Sung Kim told The Washington Post. But “I don’t see how else we’re going to get money into that country.”

Ukraine is also the birthplace of Looksery, the company that Snap acquired to help build its augmented reality features. Snap said 300 of its team members have called Ukraine home, but the company would not clarify how many are currently there, citing safety concerns. It has been providing emergency assistance and helping team members leave danger zones. It also pledged more than $15 million in humanitarian aid to support organizations providing direct relief to Ukraine.

Snap halted ads running in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and stopped sales to all Russian entities. The company said it plans to continue providing aid to its workers in Ukraine as the conflict unfolds.

“Many of our friends and teammates remain in Ukraine,” it said in a statement. “Some have joined the fight to defend their country.”

Ubisoft said it has provided Ukrainian team members additional funds to help cover the costs of travel and relocation. It also paid salaries in advance to account for any potential disruption to local banking systems. The company also is providing housing for employees in neighboring countries. To ensure continued communication, the company set up hotlines to respond to workers’ questions and needs and implemented an “emergency communication system” in case the infrastructures become unstable.

Microsoft, which has employees in Ukraine and Russia, said it is monitoring the situation and focused on supporting its workers in the region.

For Wix, the crisis operation has benefited from the military background of its workers — all Israeli citizens older than 18 are required to serve. Zohar also estimated that 100 employees have volunteered to assist. That includes Ukrainian workers who relocated to neighboring countries and are now checking on their colleagues who stayed behind. Employees want to help those who are struggling, as was the case when a hurricane hit Miami several years ago and last year when a winter storm in Texas left residents without power.

Zohar said he is moved by the employees who have already jumped in to help and those ready to provide aid in whatever way they can.

“In this time of distress, that’s the light,” Zohar said. “The human spirit that is so much alive.”

Nitasha Tiku and Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.

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