World Reimagined: What is 'ZigZag Working'?

People gathering in an office

As the pandemic rewrote the rules of employment, the line between home and work faded, making it harder and harder to gauge what qualifies as work time and what qualifies as home time in this new work-from-home and hybrid world.

Of course, the need to separate the two hasn’t gone anywhere. To better understand the shift of the current world, researchers have stepped away from examining “work/life balance” and begun using a new expression: ZigZag working.

The term incorporates the sudden shift people, especially parents, make in their current day, jumping from a Zoom call to assisting with childcare to finishing up a report to having to take the dog for a walk. It’s the study of the nonstop shift between work and life and paid and unpaid duties.

ZigZag working is new ground for both companies and employees, but as it’s better understood, it could help reduce the issue of burnout, which has been a growing problem throughout the pandemic.

“The key to getting the most from remote workers without burning them out is setting clear expectations as well as establishing healthy boundaries,” says Brandon Smith, expert in workplace health and dysfunction at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. “If employees know what the priorities are as well as the urgent projects, they can more effectively manage their time in order to achieve those goals. … In addition, employers need to set boundaries around work hours by clearly stating when meetings are not acceptable to ensure the remote employees don’t find themselves in meetings from 8:00am – 6:00pm each day.”

Clearly, the rules of ZigZag working are being made up on the fly, since even though many kids are back in school now, those children can be sent home for a two-week quarantine due to a positive COVID test or close exposure with virtually no warning. And many after-school sports, which parents relied on as a childcare support, are still not being played. Companies, meanwhile, still have deadlines and priorities that need to be met.

This blending of responsibilities is, in a way, much like dating. Both employer and employee need to be clear on what they want and need from the other. And they need to learn to be flexible with those demands.

Still, balancing home responsibilities, such as childcare, with work duties isn’t going to magically become easier.

“In order for that balance to exist, it will require an open and honest conversation with one’s manager that includes setting healthy boundaries (i.e., ‘I’m unavailable for meetings between 3:30 – 5:00pm due to childcare responsibilities’) as well as clear expectations regarding outcomes,” says Smith. “Managers will need to be more flexible than ever on how employees achieve those goals (i.e., ‘I need this report by next Monday. That said, you can work on it at any time that is most convenient for you’).”

For employers, there are ways to make it easier for ZigZag workers – and see improvements on deliverables. Candice Harris and Jarrod Haar, professors at Auckland University of Technology, suggest several tweaks to normal work routines, such as:

  • not starting online meetings at the top of the hour, to avoid conflicts with school class sessions beginning
  • recording all-staff meetings and organizational updates, so parents can tune in at a time that works with their family’s schedule
  • interrupting long online meetings with short breaks
  • understanding there’s no such thing as a completely silent work environment when the employee is at home.

ZigZag workers can be anyone with obligations beyond the workplace where the normal support structures are unavailable, of course, but it’s a term that leans heavily toward parents or people with dependents. Those are also the groups most likely to face burnout in the current work environment – something managers might need to keep in mind.

“ZigZag working is going to be hardest for the individuals that assume the primary childcare duties at home,” says Smith. “These individuals are going to struggle the most with guilt, as well as setting healthy boundaries. Employers would be wise to provide extra support to these individuals and equip managers with the proper training to support these individuals in ways that will allow them to maintain that delicate balance.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

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