How I Opened an Office in a War Zone
Lisa Hogan had no experience in foreign policy when she co-founded Glevum Associates in 2006. That was the domain of her husband, Andrew Garfield, who served as an intelligence officer in the U.K.'s Ministry of Defense. She didn't join the company full-time as CEO, in fact, until two years after its founding. Little did she know that just a few months later, she would be headed to Kabul, Afghanistan, to open a satellite office.
Glevum Associates, based in Burlington, Massachusetts, conducts surveys of local populations in conflict zones for government agencies. The information it collects helps military officials better understand the communities in which they conduct operations, and in turn, devise more effective strategies. In 2008, the company won a contract with the Human Terrain System of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command to survey local populations in Afghanistan. Upon receiving the award, it had to quickly deploy a team of six employees to gather data and build a network of regional experts.
The company began operations in Kabul in August 2008. Until then, Hogan, who had previously run a physical therapy practice in London, had worked part-time to handle the company's finances, payroll, and operations. Despite her husband's extensive foreign experience, she had never traveled to a conflict zone. So the contract, in a sense, was an initiation of sorts for the new CEO. "A couple of months ago, I had been in a clinical environment," she says. "Now I was wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet driving through Kabul. It took an interesting path of life choices to lead to that moment, but there it was."
Finding accommodations for Glevum's employees, who would work and live together under the same roof, turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of setting up shop in Kabul. The company's first office, a guesthouse in the city's Shahre Naw neighborhood, wasn’t the most convenient. Initially, employees lacked a common space to work together; the company had to rent a separate room to function as a conference area. And the building often had power outages, which made it challenging for employees to carry out their work. "It's not the easiest place to suddenly establish yourself in," says Hogan. "It's kind of like building an airplane when you’re already going through the air."
Fortunately, the company's country manager at the time, Philip Poullada, was able to find a suitable long-term rental, two newly built houses with an enclosed courtyard, after only a couple of months. The rental agreement was finalized just in time for Hogan's visit to Kabul in October 2008. She and Poullada were able to oversee the development of the new office, including electric work, masonry, and furnishings, and hire a cook, housekeepers, and security guards. They set up a prayer room for the company's Afghan contractors and added an exercise room in the basement.
Although much of Hogan's experience in Afghanistan resembled any new office move-in, her trip also revealed the challenges of working in a conflict zone. Living and working in the same facility inherently altered the notion of work-life balance. The employees in turn were particularly constrained by safety concerns, even as compared to their colleagues in Baghdad, who were based at the expansive Camp Victory. It was often unsafe for them to even make grocery runs, so the Afghan house staff would pick up any items they needed. "Most people take for granted at the end of the day that they can leave the office, jump in a car or train, and go home," Hogan says. "They can go take a walk in their neighborhood or run to the supermarket. In Afghanistan at that time, that was not a good idea."
Because Glevum's employees face a particularly rugged and constraining work environment, Hogan emphasizes employee wellness. "Andrew and I have lived that ourselves, so we find ways to make them comfortable and happier," she says. She maintains regular contact with deployed employees by e-mail and Skype as they balance security precautions with occasional outings for much-needed relaxation. And the company is generous with vacation time: employees typically receive time off after every three months of their deployment, or for about four weeks a year. Hogan insists, in fact, that employees take regular breaks in order to refresh. "Our work takes a fair amount of flexible thinking and creativity," she says. "If that's lacking, the analysis is not very compelling."
Even with those considerations, Hogan realizes that spending months at a time in a hotspot in the Middle East is not for the faint of heart. Glevum recruits top graduates of master's and doctoral programs in fields such as political science and anthropology. But along with those credentials, the company's executive team seeks to ensure that potential employees will be comfortable living and working in places with limited amenities and high security risks. "We're straight up with people about the limitations imposed upon them," Hogan says. "Not everyone is necessarily cut out to work in an austere environment." In most cases, Glevum's hires have had previous experience working in the Middle East, Africa, or South America.
From her past business experience, Hogan had already learned the importance of ensuring her employees' well-being. Her time at Glevum, she says, has only underscored that lesson. "We're very keen on retention of staff," Hogan says. "Once we get somebody who knows innately what's happening on the ground, we want to keep that person in."