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Sun, sand, surf and spreadsheets

While you're saving your two weeks of vacation to hit the sand, some workers are getting paid to be there.
/ Source: Business Week

While you're Dilberting away in your cubicle, there are people taking conference calls in board shorts and flip-flops. While you're saving your two weeks of vacation to hit the sand, they're getting paid to be there. There are people—even respectable people—who have somehow turned a folding chair into a place of work.

Aided by technology, pioneers are now converting the beach into a fully functional office. People who work from the beach in non-hotel, non-burger-stand, non-pot-dealer capacities are still rare enough that no agency tracks the phenomenon. Brooks Brothers does not yet make a three-piece bathing suit; Herman Miller doesn't sell an Aeron chaise.

It's not like these beach workers are slackers; they just don't like being controlled. It's the same reason why we TiVo shows or e-mail and text more than call. When you can work from wherever you want to be—especially if it's the place where everyone wants to be—work isn't so bad.

It helps to be self-employed. And to do something that's already weird. Like Eric Poses. The 36-year-old owns a one-man company called All Things Equal that makes board games such as the hit Loaded Questions franchise. He has an office five blocks from the ocean in Miami Beach and takes a legal pad and a beach chair there about once a week for three hours. In the summer his family moves to Santa Monica, Calif., where he puts in a hard three hours of beach work per day. It's a relatively austere environment considering that, in his late 20s, he developed a game while downing beers at a W Hotel.

At the beach, Poses tries not to use his BlackBerry. He doesn't go in the ocean much, but when he does he just leaves his phone and pad on his chair. ("I've been lucky so far," he says.) Poses has become so used to focusing from the sand that he doesn't get distracted by the bikini wearers he shares his office with. "During the week it's not quite as crowded."

Ward Holloway has a job that is so serious it's boring to even explain. He's director of "global check point alliance" for Crossbeam Systems; he manages a partnership between his company in Dallas and one in Israel that provides security for corporate networks and involves something called a Godbox. (Told you.) And while he does a ton of traveling, for two months each year he works in a beach chair under an umbrella on a lake in Macatawa, Mich.

Holloway uses his BlackBerry and his laptop, which gets wireless from his in-laws' nearby house, thanks to a booster he installed. If it's not windy, he says his laptop doesn't get too sandy, though once a week he has to take the back off his BlackBerry, remove the battery, and blow out all the sand. "If the waves are especially large, you have to have strategic control over the mute button on a conference call," Holloway says. There are a few other people who work on his beach. And, just like in any other office, they like to get together to bitch. "We commiserate. Like, 'Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have our BlackBerries with us all the time and we could just relax?' "

Bill Kilburg, 48, is the chairman and chief executive of Scottsdale (Ariz.)-based Hospitality Performance Network Global, a broker of group meetings. For six weeks each summer, he and his co-founder rent houses five blocks apart in Mission Beach, San Diego, and work from there. "My CFO gets my parking space, so she's happy," Kilburg says. He generally works from the shore on his BlackBerry until 1 p.m., then cracks a beer and heads into the ocean. He's philosophical about his ability to lead the 170-person company from the beach. "My job is the strategic growth of the company," he says. "It's not like I have to be sitting in my office to do that."

Alan Laubsch is one of the founding members of risk-management firm RiskMetrics Group, which broke off from JPMorgan in 1998, where he had worked since graduating from Stanford in 1993. For more than half the week, Laubsch works from his condo in Hua Hin, a beachside village two hours from Bangkok where the King of Thailand also has a summer place. While Laubsch tries not to do too much work from the beach, he does take conference calls. "People are complaining that since the advent of e-mail and cell phones, we're tied to technology," he says. "That's the shadow side of technology, that it can enslave you. But it can liberate you to work from where you want to work."

The most liberated of all the regular beach workers may be Valerie Michaels, who owns City Publicity, which handles extreme-sports stars. She has three employees and an office on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, but she prefers working on the beach in Malibu. "Thinking about money fills me with anxiety, so I make my CFO meet me on the beach," she says.

Michaels, a tanned 35-year-old who wears giant sunglasses and talks superfast, heads alone to the beach most days, bringing her Burton cooler with built-in iPod speakers. She packs it with coconut water or chlorophyll drinks (on Fridays, it's Coors Light), tuna on a baguette, Kettle Chips, two sunblock lotions, a hair tie, Post-It notes, and a pen. She pays $600 a year for access to the Las Costa Beach Club, which provides the only stretch of non-home-owner-controlled beach in the area, plus bathrooms, chairs, a fridge, picnic tables, and a cooking area. She picks up a chair and places it next to the lifeguard stand—"They're all hot, it's great eye candy!"—puts her BlackBerry in one of the cup holders, and strips down to her bikini. "I live in a bikini. I have a drawer this deep filled with bikinis," she says while making the universal symbol for a deep drawer.

Not long ago, after posting a Facebook photo of her feet buried in sand, Michaels got a text from a client that read, "Hard at work, I see." She says no one has ever seriously complained about her work style. "Obviously you can't make cars this way," she says. "But it's publicity. We're not curing cancer." That morning, she met with 16-year-old snowboarder Trevor Jacob, who showed her a video of him jumping into a pool from a motel balcony. He's not the kind of client who will gripe that Michaels isn't at a desk in a pantsuit.

For Michaels, the beach is now a better office than an actual office, because it mirrors—sort of—the low-tech, pre-Internet version of working at a desk. As she throws a tennis ball for two chocolate labs that run up to her, she says: "I'm less distracted on the beach than I am at the computer. My BlackBerry has a slow connection to the Web, but I don't need it. I'd be on my Google start page or looking at my horoscope." That advantage may not last. As of June, Las Costa began delivering Wi-Fi right on the beach. The club expects more businesspeople to join her.

When Michaels has to take serious calls, she says most people don't notice the surf in the background. "If it's real windy out here, I just say I'm driving," she says. Though her business is doing well, her lifestyle does impose some limitations. "I've been offered the in-house position at UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship], but no way. I'm not moving to Vegas," she says. "There's no beach there."