Strengthening CEE’s Silicon Valley – how companies can hire remote tech talent amidst the war in Ukraine

In this guest opinion piece, Sergiu Matei, the Founder of Index – a service that helps businesses find software developers from across the world – explains how Central Eastern Europe is fast becoming the new Silicon Valley, how the war in Ukraine is impacting this, and how to reduce ‘brain drain’.

The world’s biggest tech hub outside of Silicon Valley isn’t where you might assume. Central Eastern Europe (CEE) is home to millions of top tech workers and tech institutions, and its historical and political context naturally lends itself to the fast-paced innovation of tech. But in the current conflict, CEE’s thriving landscape faces an uncertain future.

A growing number of workers in the region are leaving for overseas opportunities, while companies are increasingly concerned about hiring there. More than ever, it’s crucial that we preserve these talent pools to empower a more distributed and diverse tech workforce and strengthen local economies. Especially as CEE recovers from severe Covid disruptions and faces new challenges, tech companies have an ethical and business responsibility to employ people from the area.

I was born in Moldova and founded a remote hiring platform, for software engineers in CEE to connect with companies around the world. Here’s what my decades of experience have shown me about the importance of reducing brain drain in emerging markets, and how to successfully hire in CEE.

Greater challenges shouldn’t curb recruitment

The war in Ukraine has seen companies there to halt operations, relocate employees, and in severe cases, conduct staff layoffs. Meanwhile, in Russia and Belarus, Wise, Remitly, and PayPal have suspended services, forcing businesses to find alternative ways to pay staff. Countries surrounding Ukraine and Russia have also been impacted, meaning companies looking to CEE have had to dramatically reconfigure how they hire individuals located there.

Naturally, the conditions have made companies hesitant about targeting CEE for remote teams, but that shouldn’t be a reason not to move forward with recruitment. You can navigate challenges by offering workers status in other, more stable CEE countries, providing them the financial compensation to relocate, help with logistics, and physical and mental wellbeing resources.

The price for not giving employees this choice could be high – Russian internet giant Yandex didn’t respond to employees’ requests to work in other countries and nearly a quarter of the entire company left. On the flip side, one Ukrainian company offered to relocate employees but the majority chose to stay. What matters is the autonomy for tech teams to make their own decisions according to their circumstances.

Onboarding as a sense of belonging

Employees always want to feel a sense of belonging within an organisation, and even more so during turbulent times. When bringing new remote hires from CEE on board then, you need to ensure they feel at home from day one – AKA have a very well-structured onboarding process.

Set up virtual meet and greets, training sessions, goal-setting calls, collaborative events, and ensure new employees have a reasonably filled calendar to build relationships with colleagues and your brand. It’s also important to let them know about in-person events; for example, at my company, we have physical meet-ups every four months. The idea is to focus on team-building, reinforcing our culture, and sharing stories. All the costs are covered for our teams, who are invited to bring their families along too.

I also make sure to touch base with Moldova to meet the team members we have there. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to have an on-site presence with workers as well as a digital one.

Of course, a big part of the onboarding process is determining whether to recruit CEE employees as full-time members or as contractors. If you opt for the former, you’ll need an entity in the target countries, and to speak with a lawyer to set-up all the steps. Points of Single Contact (PSCs) are e-government portals that can supply information about such administrative procedures.

Alternatively, hiring individuals as contractors will require delegating another organisation to create contracts and manage the onboarding process. According to our in-house data, recruitment platforms can actually reduce hiring time, hiring costs, and boost retention.

Your perks should reflect the people and place

Tech workers in CEE have long been accustomed to remote work. Even before the pandemic and Ukrainian crisis, people were employed by overseas companies and adept at working from home. It wouldn’t be wise then, to ask teams to switch to a hybrid or in-office scenario.

Instead, allow the possibility to work 100% remotely, from wherever individuals choose, when they choose. It’s beneficial to go a step further and give expenses for trips, accommodation discounts, and other perks. People in CEE don’t want to be rooted to a place, and more poignantly, may need to move quickly and suddenly in the current situation.

You should automatically include health insurance and a pension for full-time employees, but keep in mind that CEE workers may require more comprehensive coverage, more extensive relocation packages, greater flexibility with working hours, and other tailored solutions. For example, we recently paid our Ukrainian engineers’ salaries months in advance to help with their cash flow.

Other extras could be supporting workers with opening lines of credit in their home country. If you’re hiring as a local entity, you could give advice around requesting loans based on the contract and salary. This perk encourages employees to reinvest in their communities by buying property or launching their own venture, and confirms that you’re investing in them for the long term.

CEE has been titled the second Silicon Valley for good reason. But more than a replica of a leading startup hub, CEE has its own unique characteristics that make it a smart and sustainable choice to hire from. As the region undergoes difficult shifts, tech companies that continue to recruit there will protect both the people and the potential of the area.