Jobs and the Future of Work

'Zigzag working’: The alternating shift between paid and unpaid work for parents

many parents, like this mother here, are currently having to juggle working from home with parenting

Some parents are making a constant switch between working from home and parenting; an alternation which has been dubbed 'zigzag working' by experts. Image: UNSPLASH/Marisa Howenstine

Candice Harris
Professor of Management, Auckland University of Technology
Jarrod Haar
Professor of Human Resource Management, Auckland University of Technology
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  • During COVID-19 lockdowns, many parents have had to do paid work from home while juggling parenting tasks.
  • Previous academic studies have often treated work and home as separate domains, using terminology such as work-life balance.
  • Therefore, in order to understand the new shift, experts have devised a new term called 'zigzag working'.
  • 'Zigzag working' is the continuous alternation between paid and unpaid work which many parents are facing.

All parents work.

The difference lies in the breakdown between their paid and unpaid workloads. That equation is influenced by many things, including education, qualifications, age, ethnicity, financial status, number and age of dependants, gendered and societal expectations, and personal choice.

But during COVID-19 lockdowns, many working parents have had to conduct their paid work – usually done in the workplace – at home.

Personally, professionally and geographically, this is new territory — for working parents, their loved ones and their employers.

It is also largely uncharted territory for researchers.

Previous academic studies of work-life integration have largely treated home and work as separate domains, with clearly demarcated tasks performed in distinct locations and at different times.

Additionally, past research into balancing those roles and working flexibly (including from home) has found parents mainly worked while children were at school or day care, or that they weren’t in full-time paid work.

The lockdown effect

Lockdowns have changed that, requiring many parents to work full-time while simultaneously schooling and caring for their children.

In this context, we suggest established, seemingly distinct concepts such as “work-life conflict” or “work-life balance” are limited in their ability to reflect and describe this new pandemic reality.

a chart showing how lockdown effect the labour supply of parents
This chart shows the percentage of parents aged 18 to 64 by gender and survey week not working due to COVID-19-related childcare issues. Image: VOX EU

To that end, we have conceived a new concept that more accurately describes the working parent’s experience of juggling paid work (formal employment) and unpaid work (such as caregiving, household duties and volunteering) when both are being performed in the same environment during the same blocks of time.

We call it “zigzag working”.

The working-from-home shuffle

Let’s imagine a typical example: Sarah teaches 26 nine- and 10-year-olds at a local primary school and is also mum to two kids aged 11 and 15, both studying from home during lockdown. Her husband is an essential worker, so he still goes out to work during the week.

One hour of her morning might look something like this:

9am: set up in the kitchen, designated as her “work zone”, she begins a Zoom session with her class to facilitate a 20-minute discussion

9.07am: motions to her teenage son not to eat the ingredients she is planning to use for dinner that night

9.20am: leaves the Zoom call, giving her students time to complete a task and for her to hang out a load of washing and reply to an email from a parent

9.35am: goes online again with her students for eight minutes to check their progress

9.41am: is approached by her 11-year-old daughter who needs help with her maths

9.50am: brings her class back together on Zoom to hear about their work, while also indicating to her son what he can eat from the fridge

Have you read?

Meeting and monitoring

Or another imaginary example: Ananya is a senior team manager working in banking. She’s a solo mum of twin boys aged 16, also studying at home and really missing soccer, which both play at a high level. They have a Labrador puppy.

1.15pm: listening live to her CEO update, she is texting her boys to encourage them to get out for a skate rather than spend their lunchtime gaming (they ignore her)

1.30pm: after the update, she grabs some of leftovers as lunch

1.37pm: takes a phone call from a team member

1.48pm: now that her boys have resumed online classes she sits down to reply to several emails

2.07pm: encourages one son to complete an overdue school project, as well as filling the dog’s water bowl

2.11pm: starts an urgent conversation via Teams with her manager

2.17pm: realises one of her twins is gaming when he’s meant to be working on his project

2.19pm: courier knocks on the door, no one else hears it, she interrupts another Teams meeting


New territory for employers

These scenarios illustrate the realities of zigzag working — the continuous and concurrent diving between paid and unpaid work as micro sessions, or managing paid and unpaid tasks simultaneously.

During lockdowns, many of the forms of support parents rely on – including relatives, paid household services, schools, day cares centres and after-school sports – are not available.

This is also new territory for employers, with many making up the rules as they go along and with large numbers of staff working at home full time.

We encourage employers to think about the roles working parents are juggling. Some tried and true forms of organisational support and being a “good employer” will no doubt apply here.

Employers might also consider tweaks for lockdown working, including:

  • recognising that working parents may be frequently interrupted, prolonged periods of “focused time” do not exist, and there is no such thing as “complete silence”
  • not starting online meetings exactly on the hour, when school class sessions typically start
  • checking in advance with working parents when is convenient to take a call, or scheduling a time for one
  • breaking up long online meetings with micro breaks for all participants
  • recording organisational updates so parents can tune in at a time to suit the family schedule
  • enabling and encouraging staff to take reasonable breaks, as they would do in a normal work environment
  • encouraging and facilitating discussions of “chaos” to counteract notions of being the ideal worker or parent.

Researching the new reality

Life was complex before COVID-19. Now it feels especially challenging.

We encourage employers to understand the reality of zigzag working and to play a positive part in it. As well, they should recognise zigzag working may also be experienced by working grandparents and contractors managing several jobs on top of family responsibilities.

For a parent, the impacts of zigzag working may be magnified if they have a partner also trying to do paid work in the home.

The permutations are many. So too are the research opportunities to study and understand this new zigzag reality.

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