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Keeping an IT Team Focused in Challenging Times

War, pandemics, and other natural and man-made calamities are sweeping the world. Here's how one Ukrainian IT company faced the unthinkable and has managed to keep its team safe, focused, and productive.

Ihor Prokopenko, co-founder and CEO of IT design and development firm Fulcrum Rocks, knows a thing or two about keeping team members focused during a crisis.

On Feb. 24, 2022. the Kyiv, Ukraine-based firm, suddenly found itself in the middle of a war zone. "It was pretty hard to keep my team focused during such challenging times," Prokopenko admits. "Still, we managed to do so, and returned to normal work just four days after Russia attacked Ukraine."

Setting priorities

As the Russian forces advanced, thoughts about work, productivity, shopping, holidays, and other everyday matters began fading away. "Our approach was to provide maximum safety to the team and their families," Prokopenko says.

Anticipating the worst, Fulcrum Rocks was able to relocate more than 70 percent of its team members to safe places both inside and outside Ukraine. "We managed to react so quickly because we had prepared the crisis plan in advance -- we estimated all the risks," Prokopenko says. "Being prepared and able to estimate possible risks is essential for any company and team leader to succeed during hard times."

Fulcrum Rocks moved quickly to help team members escape hot zones with their families. "It was very difficult to find shelter for so many people at the same time," Prokopenko admits. The company focused on creating a handful of different hubs, both inside and outside Ukraine. "We also arranged a gathering spot in Portugal for some of our employees who relocated abroad," he says. "We wanted to help as many people as possible -- our HR searched for solutions to accommodate everyone."

As the situation gradually stabilized, Fulcrum Rocks worked to establish regular communication both within its teams, and across the entire enterprise. Prokopenko says that his goal has been to help his staff stay focused by removing distractions and providing strong motivation. "During general meetings, we informed everyone about our plans, next actions, and current situation," he says. "It helped us to keep everyone focused and motivated on their projects." Team leads, meanwhile, began holding daily meetings with their members to discuss project progress, challenges, and successes.

Prokopenko says he's also paying close attention to his staff's mental health. "The war creates new fears, problems ... so we want to be sure that no one is dealing with [these challenges] alone," he notes. "That's why we hired a psychologist and provided free psychology sessions for everyone, whenever needed."

Staying focused and motivated

When helping a team that's working in a crisis environment stay focused, it's important to remove, or at least minimize, as many distractions as possible. While quality remains the top goal, staff productivity must also be maintained.

Prokopenko says he's prioritizing safety, mental health, information distribution, and crisis coping issues. "At the same time, we put a strong stress on the team's goal, which is to return to a normal life in free Ukraine as soon as possible," he says. "Regular communication, volunteering, donations, and great client support helped us to motivate the team to return to work as soon as possible."

Maintaining performance

Prokopenko feels that employee performance tracking is essential during a crisis situation. "If the times are really challenging, then 'regularly' means every day," he says. In a difficult, strained situation, performance tracking doesn't have to be formal or complex. "It can be daily sync-ups where everyone is describing their plans on the day; what was done/not done," Prokopenko says.

Team leaders can help keep business humming in a challenging environment by regularly checking project progress reports. "Simply, they can track reports in the project management software used—Jira, for example," Prokopenko explains.

If a staff member suddenly begins underperforming, distraction may be the cause. To address the problem, the team leader should have a one-on-one meeting with the employee to discover the reason for the sudden subpar output. If necessary, this discussion can be passed along to human resources for additional input and support, Prokopenko says.

Prokopenko believes that organization leaders should set an example of how to behave in challenging times. "Everyone in the team should understand that they're taken care of, that they're valued, and that their leader thinks about their future and safety," he says. "That's what the current situation demonstrates to us."

Parting thought

Prokopenko stresses the importance of being open and honest with colleagues at all levels, and to face challenges as a united team. "That's what's happening now at Fulcrum Rocks," he says.

The firm has even been able to pick up a few new team members and clients over the past several weeks. "We have never been so close and strong as a team," Prokopenko says.