Too much work or capacity erosion?

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 12th July 2022

Ciao from Trieste, Italy, a truly beautiful part of the World.

I recently overheard a conversation between a team leader and the HR person who supported the team. They were discussing a pulse survey conducted across the team in question. One of the comments from the HR person caught my attention. ‘A common theme coming through from all the respondents was that there was too much work for them to do. They feel overloaded all the time. We need to take this seriously and address this issue’.

‘Too much work’ and ‘Not enough resources’ are phrases I hear a lot from workshop participants and clients. And in many cases teams are asked to do too much, with too few resources to manage all the work. But to jump straight to the conclusion that there is too much work is a mistake in my view. In fact, before we ask, ‘Is there too much work?’, I believe we should ask two other more useful questions, related to what I call ‘Capacity erosion’:

  1. Is there too much internal erosion of our team’s capacity?
  2. Is there too much external erosion of our team’s capacity?

Capacity erosion refers to the idea that we often allow our capacity to do productive work to be eroded away, bit by bit. Sometimes we do this to ourselves, and sometimes we allow others to do it to us. The Cambridge Dictionary defines capacity as ‘The total amount that can be contained or produced’. In this case we are talking about the total amount of work that can be produced by an individual or a team. And I would further suggest we are talking about the total amount of work that can be produced in a reasonable number of hours. (We can always get more done if we work longer, but that is a not a sustainable solution to this problem).

Our capacity to do work is not just governed by time. Our ability to get work done, and done well, requires not just time, but energy, and focus as well. Of course, we need enough time to get things done, but if we have time but don’t have enough energy to do the task, it is really easy to switch off or procrastinate. If we don’t have enough focus, we can easily allow ourselves to become distracted by other things.

But what if we had enough capacity to get all the required work done, but that capacity was being eroded by our own behaviours or the behaviours of others? What if our capacity was being attacked from within as well as from outside?

Internal capacity erosion

When we are not personally organised, we are at risk of eroding our own capacity. Think of our personal work capacity like the volume of a suitcase (excuse the travel analogy that is coming, I am caught up in a world of packing and unpacking at the moment as we travel through Italy). A suitcase can only fit so many things. If there are too many things to fit easily, then we might feel we have no choice but to leave some out. But if we take the time to fold and organise the contents well, we can fit more into the space. I know this to be true as my partner Vera is a ninja packer! Organising the contents well allows us to maximise the capacity of the case.

Likewise, when we have a good organising system for our work, we can fit more into our available time, energy and focus. We protect our productive capacity when we are organised. But if we are not organised, we create a way of working that makes us feel busy and stressed, with a lot of wasted time, energy and focus. Some examples of things that internally erode our capacity might be:

  • Not having a clear system to manage priorities
  • Being sloppy with calendar commitments and events
  • Constantly reacting to email alerts
  • Using your Inbox as a messy filing system and task list
  • Working reactively and leaving work until the last minute

All these examples erode the individual’s capacity to get important work done. The good news is these personal productivity issues are easily remedied with some basic training or coaching. It shocks me sometimes how, as workers, we are often expected to be highly productive with little formal guidance on how to do this.

External capacity erosion

Of course, many people are highly organised, but may experience a different form of capacity erosion – one created by their team, peers, stakeholders or even clients. Every time we receive an email, phone call, Microsoft Teams message, meeting invite, interruption, or delegation, we may end up with eroded capacity. When other people are not mindful and purposeful in their interactions with us, it can cause our productivity to drop, and divert our time, energy and focus to less important things. Some examples of this might be:

  • Last-minute urgent meeting invites that disrupt our plans
  • Too much email noise due to poor use of email
  • Thoughtless and unnecessary interruptions
  • Poorly designed work processes
  • Other people creating urgency by leaving critical work until the last minute

Working with others is complex, and it would be impossible to completely solve this problem. But this type of capacity erosion can be greatly reduced with a bit of work. Unfortunately, many teams have not stopped to examine the different ways that capacity is being eroded across the team. Investing time in raising awareness about the behaviours that cause erosion and putting team agreements in place to shift behaviours is well worthwhile, in my opinion.

So, if your team is under pressure and feels like they are working at, or beyond capacity, don’t jump straight to the question about too much work. First ask yourselves if you have minimised the internal causes of capacity erosion. If not, undertake some personal productivity training as a team to get organised ASAP.

Then, ask yourselves if you have minimised the external erosion. If not, brainstorm all the things that are eroding capacity across the team and put strategies in place to deal with them. If you are still feeling like there is too much work to do after that, then (and only then) explore how you could reduce the workload of the team or increase the resources.

Ok, now I have now reached my capacity to write newsletters when the Italian sun is shining and calling me!

Ciao for now.

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