Capacity checks — reflection
Read part 1: How is your team’s capacity?
We did it!
This week, I am acting for my Assistant Director and I have been testing out the daily 15 minute capacity check meetings across 3 different teams: Research, Design, and Accessibility.
This involves choosing a background before joining the meeting that conceptually represents how free or how busy someone feels they are. To get an overview of the options and what they look like, see the initial article — How is your team’s capacity?
Did it work?
I was not sure what to expect. It could have been a complete failure. I was ready for it. But I am happy to say that, as far as I am concerned, it worked:
- From those folks who made it to the daily meetings, some did use the background images. I would say that was a success already!
- As the week went on, some people continued to use the background images, others stopped and others joined in. So there was a nice flux and dynamism of use versus non-use.
Was it useful?
I though it was really useful because it helped me as the leader:
- Get the ‘pulse’ of the team and sense the energy of the group better
- Correct any assumptions about whether certain people were busy or not (and there were some surprises)
- Notice how some folks who already had full plates were still volunteering to help others, taking on even more; this allowed for a gentle reminder or a nudge to check their workload or see if they needed help unloading anything first
- Centre the conversation around ‘helping’ each other and prompting circling back to each person to see if they needed any help, especially when their plates were quite full
- Invite the team to deconstruct their workload and to-do lists with an eye for things that someone else could help with
- See subtle changes in how folks assessed their capacity from one day to another
- Normalize for the team that their perception of ‘work capacity’ can be impacted by circumstances outside of work— as this is how they feel that day and their whole-selves matter
- Be vulnerable and open with the team about needing help (model the behaviour I hoped to encourage)
- Reflect on and be intentional about how I choose to show up for the team (more on that below)
I asked my team to share their thoughts on these meetings and the following perspectives came through:
Length of time
- Short and sweet: 15 minutes was a good amount of time (not too much, not too little)
- Too short to be accurate: the flip side of ‘short and sweet’ was that it may not have given folks enough time to share ‘what was truly on their plate’
- Daily: Most people felt that daily frequency was a good opportunity to connect the team, especially when/if there are many changes in terms of projects, priorities, and team composition; it also allows for better connection between employees who might not always be in the office due to compressed or other flexible work arrangements
- Not daily: A few people mentioned that they could not commit to daily meetings, they needed more focused time to get work done without interruptions and to be able to effectively participate in the check ins, they needed to spend additional 15 minutes beforehand to prep and reflect; so reducing the frequency would make it more manageable and effective
Many commented on the value of seeing other members of the team and making connections between people and projects
Background images use/usefulness
The capacity images were not as great of a success, as I have hoped :) Most folks who commented on them were neutral about their value
- Fun: A few said they were fun, but would be more useful if more team members used them, so you could actually quickly see at a glance who is busy and who is not
- Reluctance: It was brought up that it can be difficult to decide what one’s capacity is, as it can fluctuate significantly during the day and that there was some discomfort with sending the wrong signal about how much work someone had on their plate (for example, having constantly too much on their plate and overwhelming others)
Some of the suggestions that were brought up included finding a different time for these meetings to better meet the needs of employees across 3 time zones and the possibility of making the Friday check in more casual.
I think in the coming weeks, we will try to have these for 3 out of 5 days at a different time, with the more casual Friday and see how everyone enjoys these. I will leave the option for people to use the capacity background images, if they wish, and if the uptake is very low for the next little bit, I will drop them. We will then decide on what format to keep for the short term and adapt as we go.
What did I learn?
There were some things I wondered about before trying this out. I wondered:
- would people feel uncomfortable sharing with the other team members how they really feel (psychological safety)
- would most folks feel like they need to show up as ‘being busy’ (because that might mean they have lots of important things on the go) or maybe the reverse ‘being available’ (because there is so much to do and they think they are expected to take on more)
- would folks use the same background throughout the week because they feel their state just does not change (either because they consistently feel this way or because they would not take the time to dig deeper)
The first concern related to psychological safety seems to be present and is something we need to work on as a team, while the other ones did not surface. I also learned a few more things in the process:
- Our team is comfortable reflecting on and sharing how they really feel about their work — there is a sense of transparency, honesty and trust — it really warmed my heart to see this!
- Asking for help is a habit that we will need to continue working on across the teams
- My assumptions about who may have been busy were at times incorrect!
But the biggest lesson was a personal one.
I noticed that choosing the background before I joined the meeting made me reflect a lot more on ‘how I choose to show up’ for the team. It made me realize that I did not want to always show up as the person who had ‘way too much on the go’ (because I did not want others to feel like they also had to have that much on the go). But I also did not want to fake how I felt. I wanted it to be authentic. So something beautiful happened for me. I then decided that I would choose for my day to feel and be a certain way:
- So the first day, I communicated that my “plate was full”
- The next day, I showed up with “way too much going on” (7+ meetings)
- And the following day, when I had a scheduling conflict and could not make it to the capacity check, I chose to post my update in the chat and decided to “make some space” for helping others
The most surprising part was that these intentional acts of ‘choice’ made me feel less overwhelmed and less crammed by my 7+ meetings and many more tasks. It also helped me deprioritize some items on my plate and create space.
A really interesting point about survivorship bias was brought up — that those who have the least capacity, might be the ones who will not attend the meetings!
So if the purpose of these meetings is to provide help, but they end up actually excluding those who need help most, then they are not meeting the need.
So then the question is, if there still seems to be inherent value in such meetings, how do we as a team make it so everyone is able to attend without being overwhelmed?
While I do not have the answer to this question right now, this has been a great learning experience and I would recommend it to others!
Update, January 2022:
The Capacity check meetings are still continuing and during occasional retrospectives and team meetings, colleagues mention they they appreciate having these meetings, as a way to keep in the loop.
One colleague has also been experimenting with the original background images, expanding the repertoire from relaxed and completely available — to things are on fire — to something terrible is approaching.
It’s been touching to see that level of engagement and team spirit come through. It reminds us that there is hope, even when things seem to fall apart.