Safety First

What's the best thing you can do to protect your home office against disaster? Prepare for the worst.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the April 2001 issue of Subscribe »

Go away on a seemingly innocuous business trip. Return to find your house in ruins with gaping 4- and 6-foot holes exposing your home to the elements, with airplane debris scattered about your yard. Sound like a bad dream? It gets worse, because not only is your home a wreck, but your homebased business has also been effectively dismantled by a freak accident.

You're probably shaking your head and thinking a plane will never crash into your home. Before it happened, Bette Price probably thought the same thing. Until a small plane with a malfunctioning engine came down and crashed into her house in two places before ending with a final crash into a neighbor's home. Luckily, there were no fatalities, both Price and her husband weren't home, and the majority of damage was done to her living quarters, leaving her office relatively intact. But she still suffered a 40 percent profit loss in 1997 due to the accident.

Just like a normal business, any home office can fall victim to freak accidents, theft or any number of disastrous events. But many homebased entrepreneurs don't prepare for the worst. Maybe you think your business equipment is covered by your homeowner's insurance, your home is safe for visitors or your nice neighborhood isn't prone to burglary. But next thing you know, your home catches on fire, your client trips over an errant cord or your computer equipment is stolen, and both your home and your business are threatened.

A Sense of Security
Quick Tips
Close window shades and curtains so outsiders can't see your office equipment.
Make it appear that someone's home by leaving lights on.
Always meet clients and potential new hires outside of your office.
Change locks and passwords after letting employees go.

What can you do to protect your homebased business? First things first: Don't announce to the whole world that you run a business from home. "Don't put a big computer near the window and work with the shades open," advises Janet Attard, author of The Home Office and Small Business Answer Book and founder of small-business content site Business Know-How. "You want to keep some amount of privacy. You don't want to broadcast that you're working from home with maybe thousands of dollars of equipment and supplies there."

Another way to keep your office secure is to not invite visitors to your home-for several reasons. For one thing, even if a potential client or prospective employee is a fine, upstanding citizen, you never know who they might know. "They may be perfectly honest and come in and see all this equipment and talk about it to their friends, who talk about it to their friends," says Attard. "Suddenly, the wrong people hear about it and you're being robbed."

Second, if no one visits your home, you don't have to worry about accidents that you can be sued for. And you don't have to worry when you last dusted or whether your moody dog will lunge at guests.

And perhaps most important, you can protect your own safety. "I never have people come to my home office," says Lisa Kanarek, author of Organizing Your Home Office For Success and Home Office Life: Making a Space to Work at Home. "I just meet them at their office or at Starbucks. I always think if it's a new client, it's just not a good idea. Unfortunately, times have changed so much, you just never know. It's better to meet them on neutral ground."

If you do have visitors, Attard suggests leaving a TV playing in the background or, if you're a woman at home alone, strategically placing a pair of men's shoes near the door so visitors don't think you're alone.

And last but not least, if you have employees working in your home, be smart about the inherent risks. Always meet prospective employees off-site, keep items like business checks inaccessible, and if you ever have an employee leave unhappily, change the locks. One of Kanarek's clients fired an employee, only to have him return and steal data off her hard drive.

Take A Look Around

Another threat to the well-being of you and your business is your office itself-that is, the potential safety hazards therein. Cords and stacks of papers may look innocent enough, but take a spill or ignite some papers, and you'll have a potential disaster on your hands.

"The key to avoiding accidents in the home office is common sense," says Attard, whose home has had two close calls with fire. "Take the extra minute and think about what you're doing. Keep the wires out of the way. Make sure you don't have too many things plugged in to the same socket."

If necessary, enlist a professional. When Kanarek moved into her home-an older house built in the 1950s-she had an electrician examine the wiring to make sure the outlets could handle office equipment and wouldn't pose a fire hazard.

And let's not forget the not-so-obvious threat of an ergonomically incorrect office. While not always recognized as a safety hazard, a bad desk chair can put you out of commission, something that can kill a self-employed income. "What you save on office furniture, you'll spend at the doctor's," says Kanarek.

Adds Attard, "Very often, self-employed [people] don't have disability insurance-so if you can't work, you don't work."

Protective Measures

You've safety-checked your office, and all fire and clumsiness hazards are under control. You meet people outside your office, and your office is ergonomically correct. Now it's time to prepare for the unexpected, and there's nothing quite as unexpected as a plane crashing into your house.

Yes, we're back to Bette Price. What did she do right to prepare for such a disaster, what did she do wrong, and how has she changed her habits?

What she did right. "If I hadn't really developed a business plan and worked from that plan, I probably would've darn near gone out of business," says Price, whose Addison, Texas, company, The Price Group, offers marketing, management and leadership consulting services. "Business plans aren't necessarily just for going to the bank and getting money. They're to make sure you have a business model and follow it and that you have alternate plans in case everything blows up on you."

What she did wrong. It's easy to assume your insurance will cover a crisis-until said crisis actually happens, and you find you're left out in the cold. Or in Price's case, left in a cramped, home-office-unfriendly apartment. "I had discussed my home office [with my insurance agent], but I never read my policy really well," she says. "It didn't have a rider on it. If I'd had a home office rider, I would've been able to relocate everything to a temporary office, and it would've been paid for. I was really crippled with the space I had because [my husband and I] ended up being in a two-bedroom apartment for an extended period of time."

Options for home office insurance include adding a rider to your homeowner's policy and a business owner's policy (commonly known as a BOP). Attard suggests you make sure you're covered for things like lawsuits from visitors to your home, loss or theft of your equipment while traveling, and protection in case someone hurts themselves because of something you've done (for instance, if you visit a client's office and he or she trips on the cord from your laptop).

What she changed. Luckily, Price's office wasn't physically damaged in the accident, so she didn't lose any important data. But the close call and damage to other parts of her home led her to adopt some good habits. She now backs up her data on rewritable CDs and keeps a copy off-site, and she transfers all her data to her laptop so she always has it with her. When she travels, she leaves her contact information and a key to her home with a trusted friend. "I also make sure I [put] all my current work files in a specific place," she says, "so if I had an emergency in the house, I'd be able to just grab everything I'm working on."

Kanarek also suggests keeping a file of important information-phone numbers, credit card numbers, etc.-that you can quickly grab in case of an emergency. She also sends a backup Zip disk to work with her husband so her key info is always safe.

You should also protect your data by using a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) product in case of power surges or blackouts, says Attard. "And if you're running a Web site," she suggests, "keep a copy of it on-site if someone else is hosting it. You never know when they're going to have a problem."

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