Running a homebased Web and graphic design business-and raising twin daughters with his wife, Mary-has become a unique balancing act for Chris Agro. Consider the time a client dropped by at Agro's Fort Lauderdale home office . . . at about the same time Mary was returning home with a trunk-full of groceries. Or when local clients begged Agro to bring some materials over . . . and one of his two employees had to double as babysitter to Nicole and Lindsay.

In both instances, chaos could have ruled. But his daughters get along well enough with his employees (one of whom is Agro's mother) that no one resents the dual roles they sometimes play. And his visiting client actually admired the family's balance, even discussing family issues as he helped Mary bring in the groceries. "It helped solidify my relationship with him," says Agro, who has run Art by Chris Inc. Web and Graphic Design (www.artchris.com) from home since 1992. "I do more work with that client now than ever before. Who says working from your house can't lead to more business?"

Not work-at-home parents who've mastered the art of balancing home and home office. Years ago, before the advent of technology services like voice mail, Caller ID, portable phones and powerful PCs, working from home meant hiding family from clients. Traditional corporate dwellers often resented the sound of kids playing or crying in the background, and dismissed at-home workers as parents first, part-time freelancers second.

Today, technology helps homebased workers better control their schedules, businesses and lives. But working from home amid kids and spouses is still a deft balancing act, says Lisa Roberts, founder of the Entrepreneurial Parent LLC, a Fairfield, Connecticut-based resource for parents in the SOHO work force. One of the most important skills is realizing when you can't do it alone. Work-at-home parents need to garner the participation of spouses, secure help with young children (child care, preschool, grandparents or au pairs) and juggle their schedules to ensure they're productive, Roberts says.

Roberts should know. She had a 4-year-old daughter who answered the business phone and gave it to Roberts while she was in the shower, and a son who once lost his cool while traveling with her to three client meetings in one morning.

"Trying to do focused work around young children is frustrating, draining and, frankly, a waste of precious time," says Roberts, who holds family "business" meetings that let all involved know her needs for the upcoming week. "Setting up a clear-cut weekly schedule that clients, children, a spouse and you can count on is key to leading a responsible work/family balance. I've found an occasional family discussion on what's working and what's not-whether the topic's the home office, the playroom or the kitchen-can keep us all on track and in check."


Balancing Home And Business

Homebased business owners rarely describe their balancing task as clear-cut. Between clients who might take advantage of her homebased accessibility and a husband who laments her occasional need to work during "family time," Tammy Harrison sometimes strives for balance that just doesn't come. As a marketing consultant and graphic designer in Logan, Utah, Harrison has had clients pressure her into meeting their deadlines and delivering a project while she was nearing term on her pregnancy. Meanwhile, her husband pushes Harrison in the other direction, demanding more time for the family, making her delve into her personal time in order to finish projects.

Balance can be fleeting and hard sought, she admits. Other than those times when the kids obey the "quiet rules," or when she works early or late, balance is self-imposed two days each week and on the weekends, when Harrison closes shop to be with the family.

"I never take on a new job without making sure my clients understand family comes first," she says. "They know I turn the phones off in the afternoons for the family nap. They know they have to give me at least a week to accomplish a task. But they also know I love what I do and therefore can help them succeed."

Marilyn Milne launched her homebased PR firm, Marilyn Milne Public Relations Services (www.prpr.com), in Eugene, Oregon, so she could raise a family and head back to the corporate tower when her daughter entered grade school. That was in 1987. Now her 12-year-old comes home each day to find mom still working from the converted garage at the family's 1920s-era residence.

All along, a positive, professional attitude and the latest technology, like a portable telephone headset to wear when working in the garden or preparing a meal in the kitchen, have helped Milne find balance and success. She selects only those clients who appreciate her gig. Early on, people chided her for being a housewife who worked on the side; now she's known as a communications executive whose office happens to be at home.

When vacation time comes, Milne doesn't bring a cellular phone so some frantic client can reach her. And she rarely checks e-mail; she doesn't own a laptop.

But by achieving balance at home, Milne has found balance in work. Several years ago, a potential client was aghast when Milne said she worked from home. Milne recently ran into the same woman; this time she was enamored with Milne's homebased lifestyle.

"Attitudes change. Times change," Milne says. "People want balance in their own lives and admire it when they see others who've found it themselves. When I first started 13 years ago, I hid the fact that I worked from home. Now I don't hide it."

The Family Helps Out

For work-at-home parents, kids and family are an integral part of the total equation. Roberts sees the spouse as an "anchor" who can help keep the family steady while the working parent meets deadlines. That's a panacea, to be sure, but only if spouses openly communicate, even outline, needs and expectations in both business and family life, says Roberts, author of How To Raise A Family & A Career Under One Roof: A Parent's Guide To Home Business (Brookhaven Press).

As for the kids, "they're the great equalizer," Roberts says. "You can pratically count on them to throw subtle and not-so-subtle reality checks whenever your work life is getting out of hand."

In almost one decade spent working on from home, Agro has learned a few pointers of his own. If a client drops by, a child is sick and can't go to school, or chaos breaks out, he adheres to a solution that works for himself, his family and his clients: He avoids clients who can't accept homebased working parents. And if his wife is working too much, Agro is quick to take a break or close down for the day. "You have to show your face around rooms other than your office," he says. "Don't let business take away your free time."

After all, he works from home to be there for his family. Sometimes his family is there for his business as well. "Mary is a great sounding board," Agro says. "When you work for yourself at home, it's nice to have a second opinion you can trust."


Top Tips For Finding Balance

Want to create balance between your home office and the family that shares your home? Here are some tips from people who do it, or at least try to, every business day:

Create rules. From observing business hours to respecting a closed office door, your kids-and you-need boundaries.

Listen. If your spouse, partner or kids hint-or outright complain-that you're working too much, take heed. A home office can become a magnet for the at-home worker. And while the kids could just be nagging out of boredom, complaints could indicate disillusionment regarding this work-at-home gig.

Power down. On weekends, during dinner and at other traditional leisure times, shut down the computer, turn off the phone's ringer and leave the office. Your spouse and kids will appreciate the time you spend with them; you will, too. You can always warm the computer back up later.

Set business hours. Whether it's 9 to 5 or 8 to 6, a work/family schedule creates regularity in the family routine and lets everyone know when the office is off-limits. Include breaks during the day when the kids get home from school; that way, you stay involved in their lives, and they don't need to bug you while you're working.

Hold regular family business meetings. Like any manager, a work- at-home parent must be on the same page with the rest of the team, monitoring progress and brainstorming new directions. This also helps the family stay focused on what the home office is (a place of business) and is not (a playroom, a children's grievance room, a retreat for the family).

Involve your kids. Whether it's stuffing envelopes, collating papers or just talking about what mommy or daddy do for a living, get the kids into the office once in a while. They'll enjoy seeing what you do and have a better appreciation for what work is all about. Also, show them your finished product-a magazine article, a Web site or a check that came in the mail.

Get help. Whether it's a nanny or preschool for an infant or toddler, or a mother's helper for older kids when they get home from school each day, supplemental help lets work-at-home parents focus on work-for at least a few uninterrupted hours each workday. Otherwise, work is a frustrating and emotionally draining task and becomes a waste of valuable time. Use this time to do project work that can't be interrupted; reserve rote tasks of business (i.e., administrative, paperwork, invoicing, etc.) for later.

Celebrate business successes and gains with your family. Celebration helps your spouse understand there are rewards in supporting your efforts, and shows kids they reap some benefit from cooperating with Mom's or Dad's needs. This can go a long way in creating a healthy balance.

Cut loose. If you've got the time, take the kids or spouse/partner and get out of the office (especially if you're coming off a long, difficult and time-consuming project).

Pursue your passion, instead of doing a job. Interruptions are easier to tolerate and work is less stressful if it's something you enjoy.


Jeffrey D. Zbar, the "ChiefHomeOfficer.com," has worked from home since the 1980s. He's a contributing editor to Entrepreneur's HomeOffice.com, and author of Office Know-HowZand Your Profitable Home Business Made E-Z (on CD-Rom from E-Z Products). Married with three young children, Zbar lives in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida.