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Childproof Your Home Office

Want to keep cookie crumbs, crayons, and screaming kids out of your home office? Check out these ground rules.

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Oreo cookie crumbs in the keyboard. . . an X-rated site suddenly appearing in your bookmarks list. . . a scream erupting from your home office as you're preparing dinner in the kitchen. Signs of a gremlin? Not if you have a child living in your house.

Parents who neglect to childproof their home offices may regret their oversights. Think it's not important? You'll rethink that theory if one of these situations occurs in your house:

Attack of the Cookie Monster. You walk into your office and discover a keyboard generously sprinkled with graham cracker crumbs. The Cookie Monster also appears to have spilled milk on that storyboard you created last night for your presentation this morning. And those crayoned scribbles on your computer monitor don't exactly give you that warm, fuzzy feeling either.

Analysis: You have a child between the ages of three and six years who has been having early morning fun.

Recommendation: As detailed below, solutions range from establishing rules (cookies are off limits in the office) to making computer usage a reward (if you feed the cat in the morning, you can play computer games for an hour in the afternoon).

A trip to the emergency room. You're in the kitchen fixing dinner, and you suddenly hear an agonized shriek from your home office. You dash into the office and discover your toddler has been bonked on the head by a glass paperweight that was within her reach.

Recommendation: You may need to baby-proof your office (for example, buy special plugs for your outlets) and remove temptation from your toddler's range.

It's time for that talk. You suddenly receive a barrage of e-mails that are definitely X-rated. Put that together with a teenager who's been devoting quite a bit of time to unsupervised Web surfing, and you can suspect, either accidentally or deliberately, he or she has been exploring Internet highways that you definitely don't want your child to travel.

Recommendation: Limit and supervise your child's Web site exploration using programs like NetNanny and by being in the office during his or her surf excursions.

One of the challenges of being a homebased business owner with kids, of course, is to avoid shutting out your children while safeguarding your office. To meet that challenge, entrepreneurial parents have devised a variety of solutions.

Little Hands

"[My 4-year-old daughter, Julia,] usually hangs out with me in the office," explains Terri Sarappo, owner of Sarappo Media Services, a media planning and buying firm in Belmont, California. "She draws or plays school while I'm here." To avoid problems, Sarappo has established some rules. "I haven't had any major problems with my equipment because I don't let her play around my computer when I'm not here. She tried to put her apple juice on my desk yesterday but was quickly told that wouldn't work."

However, Sarappo admits that it's not always easy having her young daughter in her office. "The hardest thing is to keep her quiet when clients are on the phone," says Sarappo, who does have Julia spend some time in day care. "When I was doing this last year when she was three, she screamed, 'Get off the phone and play Barbies with me.' Work stopped and she went off to daycare at that moment."

Although Julia now understands that when mommy's on the phone, talking is forbidden, she still "loves to come in and distract me while I'm working," says Sarappo. "She'll report on what she's doing on a minute-by-minute basis or keep interrupting me to ask for help with what she is doing. That makes work take twice as long," says Terri. For example, it once took Sarappo several hours to finish a spreadsheet for a client. Although she charges by the hour, Sarappo only charged the client for two hours. "That was a more accurate estimate of what the job would have cost without Julia around."

Another Julia-created challenge: "Running out of supplies, especially paper and file folders, which she uses for artwork," Sarappo says. "Sometimes I have to stop and run to Staples at the last minute because there's not enough paper left to receive faxes or print reports.

"One of the things I try to teach her is to respect work. She understands that we work to get money, and if she's good, I can continue to work here instead of at an office. She likes that. I also bought her a present from the Lillian Vernon catalog and told her it was because I got paid for a job. Now she wants me to work so we get her more things!"

Sarappo took the time to explain these economical basics to her young daughter, she says, "[because] I just thought it was important to show her that there was something in it for her as well: More time with mom because I no longer work full time, and I share the wealth when a project is finished."

Schoolage Situations

Although Dolores McCrorey's daughter Elizabeth is now 19-years-old, McCrorey recalls very well her experiences when Elizabeth was much younger. "When my daughter was six, she thought it great fun to be able to 'share' in conversations I had with clients on the phone," reminisces McCrorey, founder of Risktaking for Success LLC, a Santa Clara, California-based risk and innovation coaching and consulting firm. "The speaker phone held the most interest for her. [I would] take notes while she played quietly at my feet. Questions from the client never failed to get her attention. One time, one of my more vocal clients, who was in the middle of sharing her displeasure with the project's direction, piqued my daughter's curiosity. She stood tippy toe to the phone and stated matter-of-factly, 'My mommy doesn't like you either.' "

As Elizabeth grew from babyhood to adulthood, McCrorey developed different strategies for "childproofing" her office. One of her most useful methods was establishing clear boundaries with 'office hours' and official 'break times' when she and her daughter would take a walk, play together, go to the park or get an ice cream. By helping her daughter understand the distinction between work time and play time, McCrorey taught Elizabeth "to learn respect for my work and for one another's private times." The confirmation that Elizabeth had absorbed the lesson came when she began putting 'visiting hours' on her bedroom door. Touché.

One way that McCrorey helped Elizabeth feel as if she was involved in her mother's work was to create a color-coated "cheat sheet" for Elizabeth that allowed her to play grown-up businesswoman. Anything with a red tag meant hands-off. "I made it a game by putting fun stickers on items that I purposely set up for her to touch," says McCrorey. "This allowed my daughter to see that mommy working from home could also be fun."

Through the years, McCrorey says her key concern has been that of safety. "I've taken great pains to ensure that my home office is safety-proofed for my daughter (and now a dog as well)," says McCrorey. "This includes the obvious, such as electrical outlets and computer wiring, to the not-so-obvious, like books piled high on a file cabinet or sharp edges associated with everyday business tools. I crawled on all fours looking for things that might hurt my daughter (or myself), and might hurt my business."

Junior High and Beyond

As your children get older, the areas that you need to limit in your home office may change. Jean Bedord, the founder of Cupertino, California-based eContent Strategies, a consulting business specializing in online content, found this out as her son became a preteen. When Brian, now age 11, was younger, Bedord had no problems with the limitations imposed by only two telephone lines (one voice and one Internet access/fax). From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Jean answered the phone in her business persona ("Hello, this is Jean Bedord"); after 5 p.m., she simply answered "Hello."

As her son become older, however, he began answering the phone as well, thinking it might be one of his friends. "Somehow, this kid's voice at the other end of the line didn't project the right professional image," admits Bedord. To handle that issue, the family now has four lines: a home telephone, Bedord's business telephone (which rings only in her office), her husband's business phone (which rings only in his office) and their shared fax/Internet access line. Brian, however, still had to learn that he had to keep his voice down when Mom was on the phone.

Bedord also discovered, as her son grew older, that sharing a computer doesn't work. "My son absolutely loves computer games," says Bedord. "Unfortunately, they interfere with business software and crash machines, plus he would love to camp on the computer for hours at a time." To avoid that conflict, their home now houses three computers.

Space allocation has also been problematic. When Bedord changed from corporate life to entrepreneurial, homebased work, she needed a dedicated office which contained only her business stuff. "I'm trying to keep the 'family stuff' segregated," says Bedord. The family has accomplished this by setting up game consoles in Bedord's son's room, having a separate office for her husband, and keeping the family room clear of computers and electronic games.

Bedord admits that it's an ongoing battle to stay organized. "But at least now I can shut the door," she says, "instead of looking at my office during family time."

Joanne Eglash is the author of How to Write a .Com Business Plan.