Collage of 6 different capacity states represented by a number of dishes and cups that someone has to balance. It starts with an image of a single, orderly cup that is off to the side of an image frame and ends with a messy pile of toppling dishes from both sides of the image frame.
Team capacity seen as a measure of how much they have on their plates

How is your team’s capacity?

Part 1/2

ksenia cheinman
7 min readOct 3, 2021


Read part 2: Capacity check — reflection

Having room to help and reflect = value

On a scale of 1–6, 1 being “lots of room to help others” to 6 being “burn out approaching”, how do you feel today?

This week, for maybe the second time in 1 full year, I felt like I was in a good place and had lots of room to breathe and help others.

Screenshot of a virtual meeting with a background that has a single cup on it and a person participating in that meeting is smiling.
Capacity is at #1 — lots of room to help; feeling good!

I got a lot of meaningful work accomplished in 1 single day! I was able to:

  • Plan and prioritize work for the next 3 months for my team
  • Attend an important learning event
  • Prioritize and schedule learning around essential social issues and invite my team to join in
  • Reflect on and create the capacity check approach I am about to share

Squeezing it in = burnout

I’ve come across different ways to measure team’s energy and moods, all of which seem like great ways to check the pulse of the humans around you.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to ensure that people do not feel bogged down by their work. How to help them leave the day feeling accomplished. I think a lot of it comes down to not overworking. This includes:

  • Not multitasking during meetings (even if there is no other timeslot where you can squeeze in that update)
  • Not having more than 3 meetings in a day
  • Having actual breathing breaks between your meetings, to document and reflect
  • Having time for mental health breaks, whether it’s a walk or a social chat

There are many issues with ‘squeezing it in’ all the time, I think my colleague’s graphic says it perfectly.

Illustration of a 1 week schedule with a person positioned horizontally across it, jammed between endless and non-stop meeting blocks.
Government work week at a glance — thank you for capturing this so vividly Aletheia Delivre! See Aletheia’s llustration in the Tweet context.

Sadly, this is what my calendar looks like most weeks and I certainly feel like I am closer to level 6 of my capacity.

In my experience, when we rush through our day, to ‘get things done’, our mental bandwidth, critical thinking, and ability to see problems in a different light faint significantly.

And while not all overwork is a matter of personal self-control and saying ‘no’ more, because let’s acknowledge it — overwork certainly has systemic roots as well, I wanted to test some approaches to help our teams feel more balanced.

Measuring capacity

Personally, I find myself terribly flawed at measuring my own work capacity. To the point where I used an app and over the period of a month or so, I documented the work I did across 128 hours to see how much time/effort certain projects took up.

2 bar graphs representing percentage of time spent on different projects and tasks over a period of 128 hours.

While this was a helpful exercise to illustrate where most of my time was spent and how much more work certain portfolios required, I don’t think it gets at the heart of the issue:

  • How do we ensure that we can effectively assess our own capacity and not overcommit?
  • How do we determine when it is time to ask for help?

I was talking to my supervisor and he mentioned that in some teams, each employee would be assigned a certain number of points which they then can assign to each task. When all the points are gone, they can’t complete anymore tasks. While I like the approach in theory, based on my observations above, this would not work for someone like me.

Instead, I wondered what might be a more immediate, visceral way to capture where each person is emotionally. To capture how busy they feel they are. Visuals was the answer that came to me.

Pulse check meetings and visual capacity cues

So I though why not try combining the stand-up meetings, which I decided to call ‘capacity checks’ to be more descriptive and inclusive (not everyone has the luxury of standing up and/or being in the same physical space together), with a visual cue for each team member’s capacity-feeling of the day.

We use Teams to do all of our video calls. So I though, why not create images that people could use as their Teams background when they join the ‘capacity check’ meetings to indicate how they were feeling that day.

This way, at a glance, when everyone is in a Teams room, we can see if the team is overloaded and focus on how to offload some of the work. If this were to become a daily practice, it would also become a reflection habit about our own boundaries — which cannot be underestimated.

I polled my team asking — if they had to pick an image to represent their capacity in terms of workload, what would it be.

I got a few interesting images:

  • batteries that are out of power
  • Garfield who ate too much and was going to explode
  • a juggler with way too many plates

I love all of them, but since I needed to come up with something that could show a scale/progression, I chose a different concept — that of ‘how much someone had on their plate’ — more of a kitchen theme.

What I ended up with is a scale from 1–6:

  • 1 — lots of room to help (single cup neatly stacked on top of a saucer)
  • 2 — some room to help (a few cups and other kitchen items neatly stacked)
  • 3 — my plate is full (a stack of kitchen items reaching all the way to the top of the frame)
  • 4 — I need some help (a stack of kitchen items reaching all the way to the top of the frame, looming over, ready to topple)
  • 5 — I need lots of help (a stack of kitchen items ready to topple on one side and a couple of items starting to pile up on the other side)
  • 6 — burn out approaching (2 stacks of kitchen items ready to topple on both sides of the frame)

Here is what they might look like if I were to role play their use:

2 background images in use side by side: Capacity of 2 — with a person raising their hand as they feel they have some capacity to help others and capacity of 6 — burn out approaching, with the person holding their head and screaming “Help”!

Have I tried these yet? No! I will be testing these out with my team next week.

I suggested that we pilot these capacity check meetings for 2 weeks with the following approach:

  • 15 minutes daily meetings
  • Everyone who is working is present
  • Share your workload capacity (can help, need help, etc.) — use one of the capacity images as your Teams background
  • Share 1 main thing you are working on
  • Share 1 barrier
  • Ask for help


  • Connecting better across teams
  • Getting comfortable asking for help
  • Better workload distribution to help during crunch times

While I think the 6 capacity states will be able to capture most workload sentiments, there is one very common scenario that these do not capture — the worry about the constantly growing backlog!

Maybe there is room for state # 7 — giant backlog monster that induces anxiety.

Image with a small stack of colourful kitchen items to the side of the frame. The center of the image is taken up by overlapping shadows of many other kitchen items precariously stacked one on top of another.
But what if… the current day seems manageable, while the backlog is lurking behind.

Perhaps that’s an issue to explore for another time…

Capacity — check! Sharing — uncheck!

I really wanted to share these backgrounds under a Creative Commons Public Domain license, so anyone could reuse them. But then I realized I needed to check Canva copyright and licensing agreements.

If you are not familiar with Canva, it is a design tool many use to create free visuals. While I created the above design using ‘free’ Canva content and the resulting design is definitely a remix, which should technically become an original work which I am the copyright holder of, upon spending significant time diving into the legal text, I realized that I cannot license my work under a Creative Commons license.

Canva grants their creators “a perpetual, non-exclusive, non-transferable” license to use their free content. This means, I can’t transfer my design and license it under different terms for someone else to use. I was very sad. Lesson learned! In the future, I will have to make sure to design my own graphics from scratch.

If you do like these, you could simply create a free account in Canva, look up cups and plates illustrations that are free to use and create your own version — you have my full permission to reuse the exact same layouts or adapt to your own needs!

If you do use something like this, I would love to hear about what you learn as a result!

The text and ideas in this article are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license, but the images I created (based on above explanation) are unfortunately not.

Aletheia holds the copyright to her image, which I reproduced here to provide alt-text, instead of embedding a tweet.



ksenia cheinman

:: digital content specialist — passionate about open learning + inclusion + collaboration + systems + stewardship + learning design + reflective practice ::