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Running Alone, Together: Creating Community Among Distributed Teams

Adding a real life, doesn't-happen-on-a-computer-screen element to an otherwise virtual work environment is crucial.

Considering Modern Tribe is a fully remote agency, it’s probably no surprise that the majority of our team’s communication takes place in Slack. We talk about everything there. Really. We’ve got 438 channels and counting!

Many of these channels are work-related, but a good deal of them are life and culture-based—and there’s something for everyone. Topics range from homeschooling and wanderlust to music and martial arts. We’ve even got a #sandwiches channel for our deli artisans. But online missives sent between meetings and focus time are only part of our company culture. The other part, arguably the more important part, is when the Slack channels evolve into community builders through real-time, shared experiences, like the weekly runs spawned by our #running channel.

The folks who sweat it out together on a regular basis call themselves The Lonely Hearts Running Club, an appropriate name for a virtual club with the tagline “running alone, together.” They even have a T-shirt designed by Reid, one of our partners and chief creative officer. (Because what’s a club without an official T-shirt?)

Co-founder and CEO Shane Pearlman proudly sporting the team uniform.

The group “meets” for weekly runs on alternating Wednesday and Thursday mornings, connecting from cities across the globe. Team members simply dial into a conference call, connect their earphones, and get moving—as far and as fast as they want. Then, about 45 minutes later, they do a post-run stretch led by one of our project managers, Kat, who’s also a certified yoga instructor.

“I find I don’t even remember I’m running when I’m busy chatting with the other runners, and before I know it, I’m back home,” says Lindsay, a Florida-based project manager who especially likes the Wednesday run that kicks off bright and early at 7:15 a.m. EST.

Conversations during these runs are never about work, says Carly, our agency director. Family, podcasts, COVID, and the best running masks have been common topics as of late. And from what I hear, you get used to people breathing in your ear pretty quickly.

The club’s roots can be traced back to the #running channel, which is open to anyone at Modern Tribe, and runners of all experience levels are welcome. In fact, several Triberians have started running thanks to the help and encouragement they’ve gotten there.

Shane, partner and CEO, can recall the exact day his recreational running journey began.

“I had never run before the day sitting next to Reid in NYC on a client visit as his toenails fell out,” he says. “He had just finished his first marathon and said, ‘I’m done!’ For Reid, the point wasn’t a marathon, it was taking active ownership of his health. So what next? Somehow he talked me into doing a triathlon with him. Which became a 10K. Which became a half marathon. And then the following year, I ran a full marathon. This club and the channel are where I learned about the golden rule—respect the 10%—and where I got guidance on training plans, nutrition, and encouragement when I wasn’t into it.”

Neill, project manager, also credits another co-worker with sparking his running habit.

“I would not be running if it wasn’t for Carly and for the time she put into starting a little community here at Modern Tribe,” he says. “I started out nearly five years ago not being able to completely run a full mile without it being a horrible experience. Now I’m at the point where I run a 5K at least a couple of times a month.”

Agency Director Carly Strelzik during a recent run in NYC.

Carly is an avid runner, to put it mildly. She estimates that in the past nine years, she’s run 15 marathons, many half marathons, and a 24-hour ultra.

Though she didn’t start our #running channel, which dates back to 2014, it’s active largely because of her passion and enthusiasm, online and off.

“Carly did the Boston Marathon and a week later came to California and coached me through the Big Sur Marathon,” Shane says.

The race—Shane’s first marathon—was also a big milestone for Carly.

“For my 40th birthday, I decided to run Boston 2 Big Sur, which was two marathons—Boston and Big Sur—six days apart,” Carly says. “Shane was also considering running Big Sur. So we put ourselves in the lottery. I got in, he didn’t. But he decided to run for charity anyway. So I flew out the day before, stayed with Shane and Reid at their AirBNB in Carmel, where they were having an owners retreat, and we ran the race together, with Reid cheering us on.”

Everyone knows that running is good for your physical health, but Carly says it’s also crucial for maintaining her mental health, and science indicates that she’s onto something.

Studies show that exercise increases levels of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream. These biochemical substances promote short-term psychoactive effects, such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm. At Modern Tribe, our mantra is “live well and do good work.” So less anxiety and more calm are right in line with what we strive for on the daily.

With so much to gain socially, physically, and mentally, if you click out of this post right now and create a running club for your own workplace, we wouldn’t blame you. And for any former runners who think it’s too late to lace up your shoes and get back out there, maybe all you need is a little support.

“I’m a ‘win back’ to running after 20-odd years,” says Ilia, project manager, adding that she likes our #running channel for accountability and helpful info from folks at every skill level. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten back into running without the community we’ve created in this channel.”

Of course, running isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay! Your club could revolve around kayaking or gardening or stargazing—the activity isn’t important. What matters is adding a real life, doesn’t-happen-on-a-computer-screen element to an otherwise virtual work environment. The freedom and flexibility that comes with remote work is priceless. But not if it costs us the chance to create meaningful connections with each other.