Kidproof Your Home Office (and Officeproof Your Kid)

Whether your boss finally gave you the green light to telecommute or you're setting out to do business on your own, congratulations--and welcome to the wonderful world of working at home. Good-bye, rush-hour traffic and time-sucking meetings. Hello, extra hour of sleep and big boost in productivity. Cue music from Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory: "I've got a golden ticket..."

Just one wrinkle: the kids. As in so many other areas of life, having a rugrat or two underfoot can make doing what you want and need to do a lot more challenging. Those noisy, messy, curious, demanding little treasures can level a home office faster than Cookie Monster can take out a gingerbread house. They scream while you're on important calls, pull (and/or chew) every cord within reach of their sticky little hands, bang on keyboards (whoops--there goes the PowerPoint presentation you spent all day building), and generally wreak havoc.

In short, much as you love your kids, they're bad for (home-based) business. Even if you're lucky enough to have a nanny or second parent on hand, kids threaten the success of your telecommuting experience. On the flip side, your home office poses dangers to your kids (imagine your notebook getting pulled off your desk and onto your child's head--on second thought, don't).

Fortunately, there are ways to work around home-office threats, both to children and by children. Here are ten essential steps to take:

  • Create a separate space.
  • Set ground rules.
  • Beat back kid noise.
  • Install a kidcam.
  • Kidproof your workspace.
  • Protect pushable PC buttons.
  • Lock down your keyboard.
  • Kidproof your software.
  • Bookmark kid-friendly search engines.
  • Block the bad stuff from the Web.

I'll look at what's involved in each of these steps, in turn.

Create a Separate Space

A home office should be exactly that: an office--not a dining-room table with a laptop on it--and preferably it should be an office with a door. If you can keep the kids out of your space (and out of earshot), you've already solved many of your problems. Your chief goal should be to make your kids transparent to clients and coworkers, meaning that they can't be overheard on phone calls and that they don't intrude on and disrupt meetings.

Set Ground Rules

Speaking of interruptions, it's important to set ground rules. Make sure that whoever is in charge of the kids understands and observes your designated "office hours"--no interruptions unless the house is on fire or there's some other emergency. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, which is why a door can be invaluable. Make a habit of keeping it closed to reenforce the idea that you're in there to work, not play.

If you don't have a walled-off space available, at least try to position yourself as far away from the playroom as possible. Many industrious home-office workers have converted closets, storage rooms, attics, and other oddball locations into perfectly serviceable offices. (You don't even need to invest in furniture: Lay an old door across a pair of two-drawer filing cabinets, for instance, and you have got a roomy desk that can go just about anywhere.)

Beat Back Kid Noise

The Aliph Jawbone II Bluetooth headset blocks ambient noise and employs special voice-isolating technology.
Of course, kids often present a noise problem regardless of where in the house you set up shop. That can be a serious issue if you need to be on the phone a lot. Fortunately, the solution is simple: Pair your cell phone with a Bluetooth headset that blocks ambient noise. Models like the Aliph Jawbone II and the BlueAnt V1, for instance, employ special voice-isolating technology that should help callers hear only your voice, not the sounds of children giggling, toddlers crying, or blocks crashing to the floor.

Install a Kidcam

Keep an eye on your children remotely with a Webcam such as the GosCam.
If you have primary childcare responsibility, either permanently or just occasionally, you'll need a way to watch the kids while you work and while they play or nap. One option is a babycam, which can wirelessly beam video from your child's playroom or bedroom to a video monitor you keep on your desk. The $170 GosCam, for instance, offers night-vision and pan-and-tilt capabilities, and its receiver has the familiar look and feel of an iPod.

Alternatively, if you already have a home network up and running, you can buy a Wi-Fi Webcam (also known as a network Web camera) and use it to stream live video to your PC. For example, the $120 Linksys WVC54GCA looks like a traditional Webcam but requires no PC: Just plug it in, and it will transmit audio and video to your browser. The $280 D-Link DCS-5220 works similarly but adds pan-and-tilt features to the mix.

Kidproof Your Workspace

Like it or not, determined kids will probably crawl or toddle their way to your desk. That means doing some babyproofing to protect not only your hardware, but also your offspring. For starters, make sure that all cables are out of reach so they can't be yanked, chewed, or (shudder) wrapped around necks. You can find countless cable-management products that are designed to protect, route, and declutter cords, at sites like CableOrganizer.com and The Container Store. Depending on the type and amount of your gear, you may need something as simple as a handful of cable ties or as elaborate as a raceway to hide and protect cables running along walls and baseboards.

Not sure what you need? Channel your inner toddler: Get down on the floor, and examine the possibilities at kid level. See what's within reach, and then route or hide your cords accordingly. For more ideas on cable management, see "5 Ways to Cure Cable Clutter."

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