It was a cold February morning in my home in London and I was staring at my laptop screen as my twin toddlers hadn’t woken up yet. Looking back at me were the tired faces of the executive team of Flo Health, our popular women’s health app. After months of tension, Putin announced what we had all prayed would be avoided: Russia was invading Ukraine.
We knew immediately that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have a devastating effect on many of Flo Health’s employees and we all felt intensely worried about the safety of many Flo team members. Flo was founded in 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. While we have since moved our headquarters to London, we remain a global company with deep Eastern European roots. At the time of Russia’s invasion, Flo had more than 200 employees located across Ukraine, Russia, and Russia’s ally, Belarus.
Flo Health is an ovulation and period prediction app that helps more than 50 million users monitor their menstrual cycles every month. When I joined the company as chief people officer in 2020, my role primarily dealt with talent acquisition, management, and building company culture. There was nothing in my job description–or for that matter, any job description at Flo–that involved running a company during a war that compromised employee safety.
On this tense morning Zoom call, our executive team aligned on a plan and jumped into action. Our plan unfolded quickly: First, get people to safety. Once employees were safe, we would provide financial assistance through a stipend, covering all relocation expenses, and pulling forward upcoming salaries to ensure monetary security. We wanted to ensure that everyone on our team was supported, both physically and emotionally, during what was rapidly unfolding into one of the most terrifying events of their lives.
But the reality of executing this plan was far from clear-cut. Many fast-moving elements were at play and employees in each country were dealing with their own unique difficulties. We instructed our employees in Russia and Belarus to leave their homes as their employment there was no longer feasible under international sanctions. Some of our Ukrainian employees decided to stay put despite the danger. Many employees in Belarus were investigating every possible route out as what commercial flight routes remained out of Minsk sold out in minutes.
People were panicking. Banks were limited. Employees in Belarus and Russia were unable to withdraw foreign currency from ATMs. We arranged wire transfers to our Belarusian and Russian employees. With air travel out of Belarus shutting down, more than 200 Flo employees packed their bags, families, and pets into cars or buses and headed to Lithuanian and Polish borders.
The war affected all our employees in dramatically different ways. Some employees with aging relatives were unable to leave their homes. Others struggled to secure the proper documents to transport their family or pets. We had been excited to welcome a new product manager based in Ukraine who was due to join Flo in a matter of days. Their onboarding program now included close status updates of their physical location and company support–a situation that takes “‘starting a new job is stressful” to a whole new level. Across all emigration routes of the impacted workforce, there were mountains of paperwork and immigration documents to produce and sift through, PCR tests to organize at border crossings, issues with visas, and a sudden severe housing shortage in Vilnius, the small capital city of Lithuania where the majority of our and other companies employees eventually relocated.
Open communication has always been at the heart of our business. Flo was founded on the premise that better information about female health leads to actionable insights and empowerment to vastly improve our users’ lives. We had exactly the same approach to empowering our employees through reliable, clear, personalized, and actionable information. We hosted daily all-hands meetings to give the latest updates and field each and every incoming question. No matter how difficult the question, we sought to provide clear answers.
For a company of very pragmatic folks, we had to go the extra mile to normalize fear, anxiety, grief, and anger. We validated every personal mix of these emotions and considered the impact on our daily functioning. Lack of sleep, difficulties with focus, and doom-scrolling took a toll on all of us and many employees were reeling from the effects of the war in vastly individual and different ways. We encouraged our team to face their difficult emotions, organized a stress management strategies workshop with Shaolin Master Walter Gjergja, built “how to stay sane” guidelines, and lined up psychologists for on-demand one-to-one sessions in any preferred native tongue.
Despite mounting hardship and with no resolution to the war on the horizon, small, humane victories emerged: The Lithuanian government welcomed and supported Flo’s suddenly growing presence in the country to join their growing tech talent ecosystem. Many of our Western European employees found ways to assist with relocation efforts. The just-arrived Belarusians joined forces with local Lithuanians and started the “Flotilla for Peace and Freedom”–trips to the Ukrainian border with vans packed with humanitarian aid, then returning with women and children from Ukraine in need of transport to adjacent countries. During these trying months, I was amazed by the efforts of our people, who daily exhibited grace and resilience in the face of adversity.
And business victories. Despite eight long weeks in which most of the company was on hold, we accomplished numerous business goals. We grew our monthly active users (MAU) by 16% year-over-year and achieved the milestone of 50 million monthly active users globally. In our unwavering support to the people of Ukraine, we translated the Flo app into Ukrainian and developed new relevant content such as how trauma and stress can affect the menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and more. We donated to the Ukrainian Red Cross and made Flo Premium free to over 2.1 million Ukrainians so they could access personalized health insights, medically-credible information, and essential period and ovulation tracking tools. We conducted a medical study in Ukraine to characterize the relationship between symptoms, such as stress and pain, experienced by women in a situation of extreme danger. Such Studies help to bridge the gender research gap on long-overlooked subjects such as menstruation, women’s pain, and the links between emotional and physiological well-being. Every team from engineering to localization reprioritized their work, streams, and roadmaps.
There are a few Flo employees who still live and work in Ukraine. Other employees, like the two hundred who immigrated to countries like Lithuania, Poland, Cyprus, and the Netherlands, have yet to return to their homelands–and don’t know if they ever will.
While many of our employees’ lives are unrecognizable from where they were a year ago, one constant remains. They are vital team members at Flo. During those early turbulent months, we hoped to provide a consistent, stabilizing force.
We are still learning lessons from navigating our company during a time of war. There is no guidebook for steering a company through periods of geopolitical change, violence, and economic unrest. The most important lesson we learned is this: we were right to put our employees first. Without them, after all, we would not be the company we are today.
Ann Roberts is the chief people officer of Flo Health, a leading app for period and cycle tracking.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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