The face of the workplace has changed remarkably in the past 50 years. More than 25 million people will take advantage of telecommuting-or working from home-this year, according to a U.S. Department of Labor survey. And many of those “homeworkers” are parents who have decided that they would rather spend their coffee break with their toddlers than in the company cafeteria.
While the home office offers obvious benefits to the working parent, there are challenges as well. If you thought it was difficult to finish that report with your boss breathing down your neck, try rebuilding your hard drive after your two-year-old has watered your keyboard with a sippy-cup full of apple juice. And while everyone is familiar with the common hazards to small hands-hot stoves, electrical outlets, and toys with small parts-the home office contains a frontier of new child hazards just waiting to be discovered.
Lock the Door & More
“I have two words to describe the first and best step toward childproofing your home office,” says Catherine Green of Trumbull, Connecticut. “Locked door.” At home with two toddlers, age 2 and 3, Green finds it easier to mark certain areas off-limits “until they get a little older.” Running a freelance graphic design business requires her to maintain an office environment where she wouldn’t feel comfortable letting her little ones run free.
However, there are steps you can take to make your home office a safer environment for your kids. Safebaby.net (www.safebaby.net), a Canadian child safety organization, recommends checking your surfaces and floors constantly for the small objects that might escape your desk: paper clips, erasers, thumb tacks.
And lock away dangerous objects and materials such as scissors, needles, liquid paper or glue in your desk drawers. If your desk drawers do not lock, you can purchase Tot-Lok Magnetic Locks for cabinets and drawers from the Safety Superstore (www.safetysuperstore.com). Lockable wastebaskets are another good idea, since trashcans tend to be right at baby’s level and old pens, toner cartridges and plastic wrappers look like lunch under the right light.
Lisa Roberts, cofounder of the Entrepreneurial Parent (www.en-parent.com) and author of “How to Raise a Family and a Career Under One Roof,” suggests keeping your office on the ground floor close to the family room or living room. A basement or upstairs office, she warns, will force you to worry about toddlers on the stairs. She also suggests a miniature “desk” placed next to the working parent’s, where the child can keep important toys or even safe office supplies like an old Rolodex, sticky notes, a play phone or Magic Markers.
Beware of hanging or tangled electrical cords as well. Protect open wall outlets with safety plates such as Leviton’s Kiddy Cop tamper-resistant wall plates, rather than the common plastic plugs that can be pulled out. The Kiddy Cop device features internal plastic shutters that will not allow the outlet slots to open up to anything except an electrical plug. The doors on a safety plate snap shut when a cord is pulled out so tiny fingers can’t get in.
Leviton (800-323-8920, www.leviton.com) packages a child safety kit that includes 14 Kiddy Cop tamper-resistant outlets and wall plates, five Leviton Kiddy Cop switch locks, and four Leviton Anywhere RF (radio frequency) switches. The switch locks prevent children from operating critical switches in your home office to which they should not have access. Leviton Anywhere Switches can be handheld or located at a height easier for a child to reach, preventing injuries from children climbing on chairs or tables to turn on lights.
Up and Away
Every parent knows how much tykes like to climb. Keep this in mind when installing shelves and heavy furniture in your home office. Safety straps such as those from www.babyproofingplus.com or regular bolts can keep heavier items attached to the wall.
Your carpets and windows can be childproofed as well. All carpets should be firmly and evenly tacked to the floor. Never run an extension cord underneath the carpet; the uneven bumps in baby’s road can lead to trips and accidents. Make sure window treatments don’t include long cords for the blinds. Hunter Douglas, a window treatment company, now manufactures a new plastic safety tassel. It comes apart with pressure, preventing strangulation. Obtain these new plastic tassels ($4) by calling Hunter Douglas at 800-265-1363.
To a toddler, the flashing lights of a computer, television or entertainment center are almost too much to resist. Place tape over openings in disk drives and VCRs for protection. Back up your PC files often, and password-protect your hard drive. Products such as Partition Magic (PowerQuest, 801-226-8977) will provide a virtual drive for your kids while safeguarding your precious files.
There are times when a working parent just needs some time alone. Jeff Zbar, founder of Going Soho (www.goinsoho.com) and the author of Home Office Know-How, designed a “Daddy’s Working” sign along with his kids. They painted it and discussed its meaning together. Then whenever he requires private time, he asks one of them to act as his assistant and hang the sign on his home office doorknob.
Certain devices and security systems can help you keep an eye on your child while you’re tucked away in your office. A baby monitor is a safe and low-tech way to listen in on your child. Watch your baby as well with “Nanny cams,” which can be viewed on a television or Web-based for PC monitoring. Ranging in cost from under $100 to several thousand, many of these cameras can be accessed remotely, if you have to be away from home. Glenda Stevens, a sales manager from Atlanta, Georgia, has a simple wireless Webcam installed over her baby’s crib that she can view from her home office-or her laptop-while she’s on the road.
Jeff Zbar’s home office features a 1940 manual typewriter, a high-tech Pentium computer and a state-of-the-art Nortel phone system. He’s still finding the right blend of comfort, convenience and safety, but he loves every minute of it. “I get to surround myself with what is important,” he says, “going to my kids’ school functions and volunteering in their classrooms, breaking on a Tuesday afternoon for a quick swim, or listening as our infant coos on the office floor behind me as I work.” He stops in the middle of a sentence to greet his daughter by intercom; she’s returning home from a day at school. She broke her dinosaur “fossil” on the way home and wants Daddy to fix it. He’ll have to go.