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Home vs. Home Office Lay down the rules, and you'll alleviate some of the friction that arises when home is where the heart <I>and</I> the business are.

By Jeffery D. Zbar

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Running a homebased Web and graphic design business-and raisingtwin daughters with his wife, Mary-has become a unique balancingact for Chris Agro. Consider the time a client dropped by atAgro's Fort Lauderdale home office . . . at about the same timeMary was returning home with a trunk-full of groceries. Or whenlocal clients begged Agro to bring some materials over . . . andone of his two employees had to double as babysitter to Nicole andLindsay.

In both instances, chaos could have ruled. But his daughters getalong well enough with his employees (one of whom is Agro'smother) that no one resents the dual roles they sometimes play. Andhis visiting client actually admired the family's balance, evendiscussing 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 ( from home since1992. "I do more work with that client now than ever before.Who says working from your house can't lead to morebusiness?"

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

Today, technology helps homebased workers better control theirschedules, businesses and lives. But working from home amid kidsand 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. Oneof the most important skills is realizing when you can't do italone. Work-at-home parents need to garner the participation ofspouses, secure help with young children (child care, preschool,grandparents or au pairs) and juggle their schedules to ensurethey're productive, Roberts says.

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

"Trying to do focused work around young children isfrustrating, draining and, frankly, a waste of precious time,"says Roberts, who holds family "business" meetings thatlet 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 aresponsible work/family balance. I've found an occasionalfamily discussion on what's working and what's not-whetherthe topic's the home office, the playroom or the kitchen-cankeep us all on track and in check."

Balancing Home And Business

Homebased business owners rarely describe their balancing taskas clear-cut. Between clients who might take advantage of herhomebased accessibility and a husband who laments her occasionalneed to work during "family time," Tammy Harrisonsometimes strives for balance that just doesn't come. As amarketing consultant and graphic designer in Logan, Utah, Harrisonhas had clients pressure her into meeting their deadlines anddelivering 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 herpersonal time in order to finish projects.

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

"I never take on a new job without making sure my clientsunderstand family comes first," she says. "They know Iturn the phones off in the afternoons for the family nap. They knowthey have to give me at least a week to accomplish a task. But theyalso know I love what I do and therefore can help themsucceed."

Marilyn Milne launched her homebased PR firm, Marilyn MilnePublic Relations Services (, in Eugene, Oregon, so shecould raise a family and head back to the corporate tower when herdaughter entered grade school. That was in 1987. Now her12-year-old comes home each day to find mom still working from theconverted garage at the family's 1920s-era residence.

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

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

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

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

The Family Helps Out

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

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

In almost one decade spent working on from home, Agro haslearned a few pointers of his own. If a client drops by, a child issick and can't go to school, or chaos breaks out, he adheres toa solution that works for himself, his family and his clients: Heavoids clients who can't accept homebased working parents. Andif his wife is working too much, Agro is quick to take a break orclose down for the day. "You have to show your face aroundrooms other than your office," he says. "Don't letbusiness 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. "Maryis a great sounding board," Agro says. "When you work foryourself at home, it's nice to have a second opinion you cantrust."

Top Tips For Finding Balance

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

Create rules. Fromobserving business hours to respecting a closed office door, yourkids-and you-need boundaries.

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

Power down. On weekends,during dinner and at other traditional leisure times, shut down thecomputer, 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 uplater.

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

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

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

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

Celebrate business successes andgains with your family. Celebration helps your spouseunderstand there are rewards in supporting your efforts, and showskids they reap some benefit from cooperating with Mom's orDad's needs. This can go a long way in creating a healthybalance.

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

Pursue your passion, instead ofdoing a job. Interruptions are easier to tolerate andwork is less stressful if it's something you enjoy.

Jeffrey D. Zbar, the "," hasworked from home since the 1980s. He's a contributing editorto Entrepreneur's, and author of Office Know-HowZand Your ProfitableHome Business Made E-Z (on CD-Rom from E-Z Products). Marriedwith three young children, Zbar lives in suburban Fort Lauderdale,Florida.

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