6 unexpected discoveries about working at an Estonian company

Having been in my new role for a few weeks, now, I’ve noticed a number of things that are different to the ways my employers worked back home.

Here are the first six, though I’m sure this list will grow as I spend more time here! (Either that, or all of these things will start to feel normal…)

1. The days start and end later

In Australia, most people start work between 8am and 9am, and finish between 5pm and 6pm. In Estonia, 10am seems to be the typical start time. I’m assuming that means 7pm is the normal finish time, but I haven’t worked late enough to verify that.

As someone who naturally wakes up around 5:30-6am, this is bizarre. I’ve been starting work at 8:30am which means that, with only a 20-minute walk to work (compared to a commute of an hour and 15 minutes back home), I have over two hours of free time in the morning and I’m not sure what to do with it. I suppose I could do something useful – write a book, meditate, learn Estonian… but I’ve been finding myself watching Netflix and YouTube. For the moment, I’m blaming jetlag.

It is nice getting into the office early, though, and having time to focus before everyone gets in. I do feel a bit awkward leaving at 5:30pm when everyone else is still working, though.

2. Communication isn’t great

When I was hired, I was hired with the understanding that I’d be reporting into the then Head of Content and was looking forward to working together. It wasn’t until two days before my flight that I discovered that she was leaving the company – four days after my arrival in the Tallinn office.

Later, in an unrelated conversation, she mentioned that the company she was moving to waited two months for her, which means she would have known at the time I was hired that she was planning to leave, yet it wasn’t communicated until a week before her departure.

On one hand, I’m grateful for the opportunity – it’s quite rare to be handed a promotion out of the blue. On the other, it makes me wonder whether this was a one-off, or whether this is the typical way people-related changes are communicated. I guess only time will tell!

Note from future Jacqui: Since I wrote this post there have been a few more developments. We’ve had a number of organisational changes where senior members of staff have been moved to other departments, we’ve had new roles get created, and we’ve moved offices. In all of these cases, communication has been last-minute or after-the-fact, and often incomplete, including:

  • Senior-level organisational changes: We were told on the day it happened. The next day, the people concerned were in their new roles.
  • New staff members: We had a Creative Director start, and though I’d been told the role would be joining the team, I wasn’t told that my role would report into this person. This means that rather than reporting directly to the equivalent of the CMO role, I’m now one level down, which feels like a demotion, even though my title and salary haven’t changed. It’s now been about three weeks and I still have no idea whether this was part of the original plan, or whether it’s a reflection on my performance.
  • Office move: First, we knew we were moving to a new office, but the date wasn’t clear. Then there were rumours we might need to work from home for a week, but this wasn’t confirmed until the Thursday before that week. Then, when we got to the office, it wasn’t finished – the first three weeks in the new office had various construction people still installing things; cleaners cleaning up after them; and no cabinetry, fridge or microwave in the kitchen (note that we still don’t have a sink, and it’s been a month). One of the elevators still has walls that look like chipboard. None of this is a major problem, but no one said anything in advance – we all thought we were moving into a finished office and it definitely wasn’t.
  • Office seating: Before moving to the new office, my team had been looking for an intern and needed an extra desk. Luckily there were a couple of spare desks in our area, so I claimed one of them, only to discover that it had already been earmarked for a future employee. 

This is not a uniquely Estonian thing, of course – there are plenty of organisations back home that don’t communicate well, either. But in my experience (over 10 years, now), I’ve never worked at a company that has communicated so poorly and so inconsistently.

3. Russian is the bridge language

We English speakers get to be very lazy, what with English being the world’s bridge language. However, at this company it seems to be that Russian is the true bridge language, with the majority of people being able to comfortably converse in Russian.

It makes sense – while we have an international team, the bulk of the members of that team are from this region (Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, Georgia…), so Russian is an easy go-to. The only exceptions to the rule appear to be me (Australian), one of my team members (English, though speaks decent Estonian and a little Russian), and two members of the wider marketing team (Spanish and Chilean). In an office of 120-150 people, though, we’re hardly a significant percentage.

It’s making me wonder whether it would be more useful to learn Russian than Estonian. I suppose I could try learning both at the same time, but that could lead to some interesting results…

4. The office environment is very informal

I read this article before moving to Estonia and was expecting to experience quite a formal, rigid office environment. This is definitely not the case, which means it’s quite a good cultural fit when coming from the Aussie office environment.

We don’t have very many meetings, as most people will use Slack or come up to your desk to discuss things. And, when there are meetings, they rarely have a formal agenda or anyone taking minutes.

From a clothing standpoint, unless someone is interacting with clients, they can wear whatever they want, which means most people range from business casual (shirts with jeans, pants/skirts with casual tops for the ladies) to full-on casual (jeans, T-shirts and runners). Things tend to be more casual on Fridays, especially if people have been out the night before. (In my first week, a group of us were out until 4am, and while I was still in at 8am, most people didn’t shuffle in until 10:30-11am, and the clothing was very relaxed.)

5. Lots of socialising/community building

It is rare for a week to go by without pizza or cake. When people are leaving, they have a mini office party at 5pm with pizza, drinks and snacks. When it’s someone’s birthday, they’ll usually have cakes, drinks and pizza from 5pm (sometimes at lunch time). There’s also a monthly breakfast, where the office managers bring in pancakes or pastries for the entire team (I’m already anticipating the work-related weight gain!).

The company also organises quarterly events – they have overnight company trips three times a year, and a work Christmas party. Apparently there’s also an office pub trivia team, but I haven’t found out who’s involved or how it works, yet.

6. Over-reliance on instant messaging

This company uses Slack and I can’t believe how much they use it. If I’m sitting next to someone, I’d prefer to turn around and ask them a question. If they’re working from home or in a different office, then I’d send them a message. The only exception would be for sharing a link or gif.

Here, instant messaging has replaced conversation. One of my direct reports sits right behind me and, any time he has an observation or wants to ask a question, it comes through Slack. And he’s not unique – it seems to be an organisation-wide approach, and it drives me nuts!

The worst bit is if I’m wearing my headphones and the messages start coming in – each one makes a little typing sound, which makes it impossible to focus on my work. And, if you’re working with someone who likes to send through multiple messages at a time, or sends through their thoughts one or two words at a time, the alerts are constant.

Some examples for you – up first, multiple messages at a time:

And now, messages that share a couple of words at a time:

I’ve gotten used to the first approach – I know it’s just how this person works, and wait until all the messages have come through before responding.

However, the second approach drives me nuts. How hard is it to use full sentences?!

Seriously, if you’re writing down your thoughts rather than talking them through, take a moment to collect yourself and write it in a since sentence. There’s no value in sending people messages one or two words at a time, or sending ‘erm’ in a message. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. But that’s just my two cents.

Closing thoughts

All in all, there are some differences when comparing my workplace in Estonia to the companies I worked for back home – some of them positive, and some of them a bit annoying. And I’m sure many of these observations are company-specific, rather than Estonia-wide. From here, I’m just waiting on Drew’s arrival so he can find a local job – then we can compare notes!


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