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Keeping the Gremlins at Bay
By Anne Fischer Lent
Work at home parents are quick to list the great advantages of telecommuting or running a home-based business. We benefit by being there when the kids get off the bus, by being near the phone when the school nurse calls to say your child has a fever of 104 and must go home immediately, and were always ready for snow days! Downsides are fewer, but there is the problem of finding Legos under your desk or hearing whining or crying in the background when you're on an important phone call. But perhaps one of the biggest hurdles of working at home is safeguarding the office equipment. Sharing unprotected office equipment is like offering an open invitation for gremlins to invade your business.

We all learned in kindergarten that its good to share. And sharing the office computer, fax, copier, and scanner are great ways to make your family feel included in your business, plus teach them valuable office skills. But if you havent taken any precautions to safeguard your equipment, you may be leaving yourself and your business open to trouble. Before you welcome your spouse and children into your office, take a few necessary steps to ensure that the advantages of working at home outweigh the disadvantages.

Start by making your office equipment is as kid-proof as possible. Begin by setting some house rules, which may include appropriate times for family members to join you in your office. Also insist that the computer area be kept neat and clean, and never let them eat or drink around the computer. Keep the area around the computers fan clear of dust, pet hair, smoke, and other contaminants. Ask the kids not to touch the computer monitor, but keep some special lint-free wipes and static-free screen cleaner on hand just in case. Also ask all family members (even your spouse) to remove their CDs from the drive and put them back in the cases. Giving them each their own CD holder can help. Kensington makes the "Now Playing" 12-CD storage unit that costs only $5.99 and displays the case of the CD thats currently in use. As in house cleaning, having a place for everything helps when it comes to putting things in their places.

The next step to home office harmony is to ensure that youll have power when you need it by connecting to a surge suppressor/UPS (unlimited power supply) combination. Tripp Lites Internet Office and APCs Back-UPS Office sell for less than $100 and are both small enough for a single office. In my home office Ive had to deal with power fluctuations caused by everything from the ice storm of 98 to my husband running power tools in the garage. If you use a surge protector, you can rest easy that a power surge or failure wont bring down your business. Be sure to plug in all peripherals and phones to the surge protector/UPS.

A Backup is a Must
All work-at-home moms should have a backup in the event that the computer takes a nose dive some weekend. I would tremble in fear if my son were playing a graphics-intensive game some weekend and I didnt have a backup. A simple way to set up a hard drive for kid and business use is to partition it and give the kids their own drive letter. This is easily done with a software utility such as Power Quests Partition Magic 3.0 ($64.99) that divides the hard drive so that it appears as several drive letters. Partitioning will help organize files for your business, too.

Before doing a complete backup, clean it up by deleting unwanted files. When the kids surf the Internet, unneeded files get saved on your hard drive, taking up valuable space. Use a utility such as Network Associates McAfee Uninstaller ($29.99) to delete files quickly and completely. Then do a complete system backup to ensure that you wont lose your databases, work projects, accounts receivable, and other data thats vital to your business.

Choose the backup method that youre most likely to use. For instance, it could mean upgrading your old CD-ROM drive to a new recordable CD-RW drive, such as the Hewlett-Packard 8110 ($399). You can do regular backups to CD-R discs, but still read your regular CDs in the same drive. Or opt for a DVD-RAM drive. While these are still very new, cost close to $800, and wont read CDs, they do hold 2.6GB of data per side, which is immense, compared to the 600MB that a CD will hold. If you already have an Iomega Zip drive ($99 for an internal model), you can use it for quick and easy backups, assuming you dont mind investing in a handful of $10 100MB Zip disks. Some of the new high-capacity floppy drives such as Sonys HiFD ($199) are also options. The Sony HiFD can store up to 200MB on a $15 high-capacity floppy, plus the HiFD will read your regular floppies as well.

The final two pieces to the prevention puzzle include making an emergency disk and guarding against viruses. An emergency disk will get you back up and running in the event that your system crashes and cant be started with the hard drive. Macs come with bootable CD-ROMs or floppy disks, but Windows systems owners have to create one from within Windows 98 or by using a separate utility package such as Network Associates McAfee Office ($99). This suite includes an anti-virus utility, which you can set to run in the background to check drives as they are accessed and email as its downloaded. The most important rule with anti-virus software is to get regular updates. This means going onto the Internet monthly and downloading inoculations for the latest viruses. Its a free service, and most anti-virus software comes with automatic reminders.<

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