From the June 1998 issue of Startups

You are speaking in your most professional manner to an important prospective customer, when your two children burst into your home office screaming at each other, oblivious to your need for privacy, quiet and concentration. Is this any way to run a business?

Of course not. That's why it's so important to establish and reinforce ground rules for the kids when you're working from home. Here are the basic messages that most homebased entrepreneurs must communicate to their kids:

  • "This may be our home, but this is my office." Perception is half the game. Your kids need to know that the "things" that make your business run--computers, papers, files and specialized equipment--are off-limits to them. To help them understand you're serious about your work, physical boundaries are essential. Kids, even older ones, need to see you're in a somewhat secluded place where you're concentrating on work. Even if you don't have the space for a separate room or an enclosed area, create one with a screen or partition.

One of the most effective ways to help children understand the delineation of home and office space is probably one of the most difficult for entrepreneurs: keeping business papers and products confined to the office, not scattered around the house. If you respect your home space, they're more likely to respect your office space.

  • "Okay, you're in my office. Now here's what you can and cannot do." Just because kids understand your office is off-limits doesn't mean they won't wander in occasionally--or that you don't enjoy them being around once in a while. But that doesn't give them free rein to play with your stuff.

The first thing you should put your foot down about is your business phone. It may seem harsh to insist that nobody use it or answer it, but if you don't lay down the law, you may find yourself in an unprofessional business situation. A client may get a three-hour busy signal if one of your teens decides to use your phone when you're out on a customer call. Or a client may be left dangling on the other end of the line for 10 minutes while your 6-year-old searches for you in the garage. Neither of these incidents helps polish your business image. It's far more professional to have an answering machine or voice-mail system answer calls when you're not around than to have an eager youngster bring the phone to you when you're in the shower.

Another kid magnet is the computer. Because the computer is so much a part of their school lives, they're comfortable with it and impatient with your insistence that the business computer is off-limits. If possible, counter their arguments ("I know how to use it," or "As long as you're not using it, why can't I get on the Internet?") by either buying a family computer or giving them the old computer and updating your own. "All the educational software is on the old computer in my 9-year-old son's room," says Loriann Hoff Oberlin, author of Working at Home While the Kids Are There, Too (Career Press). "There's no reason for him to use mine."

  • "Unless I tell you differently, assume I'm working." Inform your kids and their caregivers that during a specific period of time, you are working and shouldn't be interrupted unless there's an emergency. And clearly spell out what constitutes an emergency. Oberlin has told her two children, "I'm not to be interrupted unless you're hurt, bleeding, there's a fire or the toilet is overflowing."

Ground rules may include quiet. When kids come in the house from outside, for example, they should enter without slamming doors or yelling. It means that rowdiness, while permissible when you're not working, is unacceptable when you are.

You may have to set up a system that spells out for children when you're unavailable. Oberlin suggests a game of Stoplight, especially for young children. Cut out circles from colored construction paper, and use them as signals on your office door. Put up the red circle when you have a pressing matter that means no interruptions short of an emergency, the yellow circle to signal children should proceed with caution by knocking and entering if so instructed, and the green when you wouldn't mind some company or an occasional question.

Whenever possible, set hours for yourself so kids know when they can have you without distracting you from work. For example, it took 11/2 years for Elise NeeDell Babcock's 3-year-old daughter, Megan Alexandra, to understand that when the babysitter leaves at 5 p.m., her mother's working day as president of Lexi Communications Inc. in Houston is over. But now that she does, she can mold her own behavior to fit mom's needs.

  • "Bye, I'm leaving." "Hi, I'm back." Rituals that signal "going to work" and "coming back" help children with the transitions--which aren't as clear as they would be if you worked outside of your home. When Tricia Molloy and Barry Chase ran Molloy Communications and Barry Chase Productions, respectively, out of their Marietta, Georgia, home, they'd tell their toddler twins, "We're going to work" and then disappear into their offices while the au pair took over. "The children figure that parents going to work in their own house is how it's done in every family," says Molloy. "When they find out other parents actually leave, they'll probably be quite surprised."

One entrepreneur routinely spends time in the morning talking and playing with his two sons after his wife leaves for her job and before the babysitter arrives and he vanishes into his home office. He finds the children are much more willing to let him go when he structures their playtime this way.

Returning-home routines are just as important. Babcock, whose company specializes in helping people balance their work and personal lives, always hugs and kisses Megan Alexandra when she finishes work at the end of the day. "Most of the time, I put on music and we dance," she says. "Or if it's raining, we'll have relay races around the apartment. The physical activity at the end of the day reduces her stress--and mine."

Other parents mark their "return from work" with conversation, a walk or bike ride together, or a trip to the store during which they discuss the day's events. Whatever work-related routines you establish, stick to them, advises Babcock. They comfort the kids and help them draw the line between your workday and your "home" day.


Patricia Schiff Estess is a contributing writer to Entrepreneurmagazine and author of Kids, Money & Values (Betterway).

Parental Guidance

Now for the "get real" part of the run-a-business-from-home ground rules: The rules don't always work. An important phone call made during business hours might be returned while you're busy making dinner or helping your child with a homework assignment. Home office expert and author Loriann Hoff Oberlin offers these backup plans for those times when the rules fall apart:

  • Have a cordless phone as an extension to your business line. Keep it with you when you're in the house, so if it rings you can answer it easily and walk the call back to your home office. (Some people even attach it to their belts or keep it in their pockets.)
  • Have a stash of paper, stickers, crayons and games in your office so the kids can reach for something to keep them busy if a call comes in.
  • When all else fails and kid problems cannot be contained, arm yourself with a gracious way of quickly getting off the phone.

Backup strategies for homebased businesses are always important, as even the most clearly defined rules can't always be enforced. But in the final analysis, training your kids to respect your time, space and need for concentration is the surest way to keep them under control when you need to get to work.

Do Not Disturb

Andy, 9, and Alex, 4, know the rules: When mom's office door is closed, she shouldn't be disturbed.

"Normally, I would get someone to stay with them for something as important as a radio interview," says Loriann Hoff Oberlin. "But one time, I didn't. I thought they'd be fine watching TV for a few minutes." Unfortunately, the home office expert and author was wrong. In the middle of the show, the doorbell rang. "A neighbor was delivering grapefruit I had ordered as part of a school fund-raiser. Andy was engrossed in the TV show and wanted to get back to it quickly. Instead of handling the delivery himself, he dashed into my office and tried to get me involved. After frantically signaling him away, he finally left."

The problem was, he left the door ajar and Oberlin couldn't get over to close it. So conversation and TV sounds became background noise for the somewhat discombobulated interview on, of all things, how to work at home while the kids are there. What did Oberlin learn from the experience? First, she learned to use the mute button on the phone judiciously. Second, she learned to get her children's attention before giving them instructions. "Andy was just getting into the TV show when I told him about the radio interview and we talked about what was expected of him," she says. "I don't think he was listening very well."

Contact Sources

Lexi Communications Inc., (800) 594-LEXI, eneedell@mail.org

Loriann Hoff Oberlin, P.O. Box 515, Monroeville, PA 15146, http://members.aol.com/lhoberlin/author/htm