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Culture wars part 2: clamouring for capacity?

May02 Culture wars Clamouring PT2 Content image

Have you ever had a boss who just keeps loading work onto your plate, with little disregard for your existing task list? What about the people you manage, who always seem to be busy, but you rarely see any output?

In this edition of Culture Wars, we talk into capacity, and the games played and behaviours exhibited by both sides of the fence. We also look at drivers and motivations, and question what we can do as leaders to establish a culture where even the most lazy or workaholic team members can exist in a sustainable way.

What do we mean by capacity?

When we say capacity, we mean our physical or mental hard limit of what we can achieve in the hours we spend at work. If you’re a bricklayer, it’s the number of bricks you can put into a wall without breaking your back or doing a bad job. If you work in sales, it’s the number of calls you can make during your shift without losing your voice or not actually closing the sale because you’re already dialling the next person.

And guess what? Our physical and mental capacity differs hugely from person to person. Some people are slow and meticulous, others work quickly and prefer to get the job done rather than pore over it for hours at a time. And some people are slow and sloppy, and others are fast and meticulous.

And here’s our first culture watch-out: how does your culture make it easy for the fast people, the slow people and the inbetweeners to get through their day without feeling pressured, overwhelmed, or even bored? There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to workloads.

Make sure the people staying until 7pm aren’t there because they have too much to do, or if they’re being ‘work martyrs’. Check in with the folks who are taking an age to get a document together, and see if they need support. And make sure you treat those who are secretly sitting there with nothing to do with the same energy of those sitting there with a secret task list that’s far too big for them.

Ask yourself if you’re factoring in time for non daily task related activities, ideas sharing, development and project work? These can build a culture of collaboration, interdependency and trust and are key to a successful culture within each of your teams.

Make sure it’s easy for everyone to shout out their capacity problems or opportunities and don’t build a culture where people assume that it’s ok to take on too much or too little. Balance is the watchword.

The false assumption

We spoke last week about how managers can have an inherent distrust of their employees without even realising it. They can also have an inherent bias to a person’s capacity to work, without knowing the full picture.

I used to work with a guy, let’s call him Chris, who was constantly on his phone at work. He would sit back in his chair, the screen lighting his face up as he scrolled for 10, 20 minutes in the middle of the day. I used to think he was obviously taking the mickey, and that he was lazy. I later learned that Chris was a mobile UX designer, and his phone scrolling was completely for work purposes.

So if I was Chris’ superior, and didn’t really know the reason for his constant scrolling, my perception would be that he obviously had plenty of capacity. Chris had already met all his deadlines, completed his work, and now has time to scroll through Instagram.

But in reality, Chris’ calendar was completely full, and he was an exemplary employee.

And my opinion of him being lazy? It was the only one in the company. The culture there made it absolutely fine for you to take a break and scroll through your phone, and it was my view that was completely out of place.

If Chris had his head buried in his screen all day, but was secretly reading Wikipedia articles and browsing BBC news, as he had nothing to do, would my opinion have been different? Yes, it would.

This remnant of a previous culture I had experienced shows that perceived capacity is completely wrong, and if your culture lives by judging what it looks like people are doing at their desks, rather than what they’re actually doing, you’re onto a dangerous path.

Instead, measure in deliverables. Work by calendars. And understand that it’s absolutely fine to allow people to scroll on their phones, or chat, or go for a walk or take an early lunch. If they want to do all of that, and all of their work is great, then that’s your company culture and you need to live by it. If they’re doing all of that and the output isn’t great, then you need to question which part of your culture is making them want to look at their phone or escape for lunch instead of doing their job.

Oh, and if you still have people working from home, remember that they’re more likely to do more work than their office-based counterparts. Make sure your WFH culture is equally as strong as your office culture, if not stronger – it’s harder to see your WFHers sitting at the screen until 10pm.

Learning how much straw to put on the camel’s back

Ever heard the phrase ‘work hard, play hard?’ It’s not a new one, but it’s a prime example of a cultural identity that is attractive to both employers and employees. But sometimes, the emphasis lies on the ‘work hard’ part.

The reasons? Pressure to meet deadlines, reduced budgets, inability to recruit, inability to retain, and many more. And the trouble is, our culture can make our hard workers feel like they have to bear the burden.

If your culture is simply about clinging on for dear life and going from milestone to milestone or deadline to deadline, you’ll risk several things. First is burnout. We know what that is. Second is disengagement. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

But third, and one we don’t often realise, is the vicious cycle of passiveness that leaders can fall into, which ultimately leads to all of these problems. We get used to our best people being able to repeatedly go above and beyond on every job. We know that a certain person can be pushed and pushed, then given a short-term boost with a ‘well done’ or a box of chocolates, before the cycle starts again.

As leaders, we need to ensure our culture is designed to get us away from the capacity merry-go-round of relying on people to do their job and then some. At the end of the day, they’ll get tired of spending all of their life at work.

Quick capacity actions to take away today



  • Build a culture where it’s ok to talk about how much work we have on, and find the right support if it’s too much or too little

  • Don’t judge by perceived capacity – judge by deliverables and output

  • Make it ok to do work the way the employee wants to work, and you’ll find they get through their workload quicker

  • Make flexible working truly flexible, and make sure there doesn’t need to be a reason for it, or restrict it just to parents / carers

  • Stop the vicious cycle of relying on people to do more every time


Has this article brought capacity back onto your radar? Or are you already fully aware – and fully concerned – about how much your people are having to take on each day?

Join us next week for Culture Wars part 3, covering conflict!






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