Eva-Maria Merjel: Novel techniques to improve internal communication and build a strong company culture

Eva-Maria Merjel, the CCO at Thorgate, an Estonian software company, highlights the ways to create a working culture that makes people thrive.

As the Chief Culture Officer at Thorgate, I am responsible for a variety of areas from hiring and peoples’ development, internal communication as well as taking care of our office.

Our company builds tech-savvy digital products for manufacturing, health care as well as for the finance industry and we have more than 30 employees, of whom 30% are foreigners. The fact that a third of our people have worked in the company for more than three years assures us that we have built an open and supportive company culture. How did we accomplish that? I will share a few novel techniques and methodologies that we use on a weekly basis and that I encourage others to try.

Work free workdays

Once a month, our people come to the office and spend an entire day working on something useful but that does not include their daily work. It can be their personal hobby project, watching an online course or reading a book.

Think of a time when you wanted to learn something new. Why did you end up not acquiring that skill? The most common excuse is that you didn’t find the time. With a dedicated work free workday in everybody’s calendar, they all know they indeed have the time and should start investing in themselves. As during that day, everybody in the company is concentrating on this, it makes it easier for people to not get carried away.

Rewarding our people with 12 extra days a year for personal development has helped decrease the overall stress level. Most of our employees are software engineers whose work requires deep concentration and the ability to cope with constant failures. Time has shown that work free workdays help avoid the risk of burnout as well because it breaks the daily routine and allows experiencing something positive.

CEO grilling

Two of the core values of Thorgate are being trustworthy and open-minded. Both are necessary for creating a supportive work environment where communication runs smoothly.

For full transparency, once a month during a company-wide meeting, we host a “CEO grilling” session. Our CEO, Raido Pikkar, reads out and answers questions sent by the employees anonymously via an online form throughout the month. Our company culture is open and welcoming, so every employee can, of course, talk to Raido directly whenever something concerns them or perhaps, they want to propose some new initiative within the company. However, as the questions sent during the “CEO grilling” are anonymous, it provides a perfect forum for more uncomfortable topics.

Retrospectives or retros

Each Friday late afternoon we also host “retrospectives” or “retros” to improve the internal exchange of information. Every team gathers for about twenty to thirty minutes to discuss the positives and negatives from the week. In the beginning, everybody has five minutes to write them down as keywords and then we all take turns reading them out loud and commenting on the topics. Recurrent negatives are then discussed in-depth to find solutions or perhaps next steps towards solutions. 

The progress, plans and problems methodology

For reporting on the status of different work tasks, we use a methodology called PPP – progress, plans and problems. In a simple spreadsheet, everyone simply lists their three-to-five key accomplishments (progress), planned activities (plans) as well as problems they are facing this week. It is recommended to also have a column for notes where people can include links to different projects or files mentioned in the PPP.

I recommend filling out the PPP once a week and use a new sheet for each week. This allows having a good brief overview of the achievements as well as plans when you’re in a one-on-one meeting with your supervisor. I personally love the structure of PPP precisely because it’s so efficient and allows reviewing your personal progress during an entire quarter, as well as keep track of the challenges you faced.

The same goes for the supervisor having a very clean easy to understand summary of the employees’ progress in their team. To our knowledge, some other Estonian companies, for example, Weekdone are using PPP methodology as well.

30-minute knowledge sharing sessions

What if instead of bigger team trainings, you learned something new with your colleagues every week? At our company, we have hosted weekly knowledge sharing sessions for some years now and it has definitely had an impact on our company culture.

Curiosity and willingness to learn from each other have become something very natural and it is being noticed and valued. In addition to a few bigger company-wide trainings a year, we host these 30-minute sessions casually in our office, where the topics vary from new trends in technology to mental health.

Most of the presentations are put together by our own employees on a voluntary basis, but every now and then we invite an external expert to host the session. As an example, doctor Jüri Laasik from SYNLAB, a medical laboratory in Tallinn, came to speak about men’s health and Taavi Kotka, a former chief information officer of the Estonian government, about future trends.

Internal hackathons

Each spring and fall, we host an internal hackathon that starts on Friday afternoon and runs for 48 hours. During those hackathons, teams themselves choose what they want to accomplish, be it prototyping a business idea or find clever ways to make office life more comfortable.

Once we set up a camera to see the length of the queue of our lunch cafe downstairs. These hackathons encourage collaboration between colleagues that don’t usually work together on a daily basis. It also increases overall bonding and motivation as people support each other in achieving a common goal. We hosted our fall hackathon just a few weeks ago and even though the event is voluntary the turnout was impressive 50%.

As the above-mentioned techniques also reflect, our focus is on being transparent and efficient and on supporting everyone’s personal development. We also care about giving back to the community, which is why, twice a month, we host coding clubs for everyone interested in Python programming language and once a year in the fall we host a technical conference called PyCon Estonia.

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: The team at Thorgate.

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