Flexibility won’t be going anywhere, even in retail. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that flexibility trumps everything. Whether it’s juggling the need to work from home, new protocols for our retail stores & associates, or dealing with the supply chain issues we’ve all faced, staying nimble and adaptable to the changing conditions has been paramount. Those companies that can pivot quickly, and have the fortitude to work through changes and challenges, will continue to win moving forward.

When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.

As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Bob Philion, President & CEO of PUMA North America.

Bob Philion became President & CEO of PUMA North America in 2017, following his previous position as the President & CEO of COBRA PUMA GOLF. In his current role, Bob has quickly fueled the growth of the PUMA brand in the US and Canada through prominent retailer relationships, a clear regionally focused commercial strategy across all channels of distribution and a commitment to building the best work environment in the industry. To date, he’s helped to lead the brand’s global re-entry into the basketball category, announced the brand’s first ever global flagship retail store in New York on 5th Avenue, and led the charge on the creation of PUMA’s new North American Headquarters in Somerville, Mass.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.

The most significant experience that has shaped my career as well as who I am today was taking an international assignment for 6 years, which ended in 2005. Being able to work with different people from different cultures was an amazing learning experience, not to mention being able to experience and see a lot of the world outside the USA. Seeing things from a different point of view and being ‘uncomfortable’ in so many ways — including from a language and living perspective — helped give me opportunities in both my personal and professional life that I continue to see daily.

Secondly, just following that international assignment I came to PUMA as employee #1 to start the brand’s Golf category. This was another experience that largely shaped who I am today. Setting up a global business unit from scratch in 2006 was an amazing experience. It was full of challenges and progress that eventually led to the acquisition of the Cobra Golf brand in 2010 and the formation of COBRA PUMA GOLF as it is known today based in Carlsbad, CA. Working with such remarkable and incredibly talented people, being disruptive as a brand ethos, finding ambassadors such as Rickie Fowler, Lexi Thompson and Bryson DeChambeau and creating some of the most innovative products in the golf market has been an exhilarating ride. I continue to be excited about this space and for its future within the PUMA family.

Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?

In 10–15 years, I predict the workplace — specifically in the retail industry — will still have a heavy focus on innovation. The athletic footwear and apparel market is becoming increasingly competitive — and that trend isn’t going to change anytime soon. As we look 10 years out, PUMA and similar brands will continue to innovate and focus on bringing in a workforce that aligns with that market need. At PUMA, we’re focusing a lot on hiring and bringing in the next generation of innovators, and our new headquarters in Somerville, Mass. is designed to foster that growth and help us scale our business.

There has never been a greater focus on improving workplace culture than there has been these past two years — largely because of the pandemic. This will be the main differentiator between the workplace of the past and the future. Every time business leaders make a decision there will be a little voice in the back of their heads asking, “how will this decision impact my workforce and the culture we’ve built?”

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

Be open to change. If we’ve learned anything over the last two years, it’s that flexibility is more important than ever. If businesses want to progress into the future, they need to be willing to evolve and find ways to add flexibility into their workflows. Those businesses that are stuck in their ways and unwilling to change, will be unlikely to exist 10 years from now.

What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?

Especially in a retail environment where our team is working with tangible products, the desire for 100% remote work and full flexibility isn’t feasible. This past year, I’ve seen how important in-person collaboration is, especially in the footwear and apparel industry. We operate in such a fast-paced, product-focused environment, so it’s important to keep that physical connection intact as much as possible. At the same time, flexibility has never been more important and we are constantly evolving and improving how to infuse it into our culture in new and creative ways.

More and more employees are looking for the ability to work remotely and be able to determine when and how much they come into an office setting. While this increased flexibility is vital to continuing a stellar culture and leading with a people-first mentality, we can’t lose sight of the fact we work with tangible products. A balance between in-person and flexibility needs to be reached so employers and employees can move forward to reconcile those impeding workplace gaps.

Implementing a hybrid approach to work can be that bridge. A hybrid model, like the one we’ve enforced at PUMA, maximizes our employees’ time, allowing them to maintain a good work-life balance while sparking creativity through what I like to call “15-minute collisions” in the office. These quick moments of in-person collaboration are instrumental to our business and a great way to exchange creative ideas, whether that be in the office hallway, a collaboration space, or in the kitchen.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed how we work, live and play. The rapid shift to work from home in March 2020 has and will influence how business leaders think about the future of work. We’re already seeing this as organizations taking a stand on increased flexibility, work-life balance and changes to the typical 9–5 working hours.

The majority of organizations are leading with flexibility and having that influence their future of work planning and thinking. At PUMA we’ve implemented core in-person meeting hours to occur within the 10 am to 4 pm time frame to support flexible commuting. This allows our employees to not be bound by commuting to and from the office during peak traffic hours, and provides flexibility for our employees to start and end their day at home or make a call or two during the commute as part of the traditional workday. We’ve also implemented a full hybrid workplace strategy that allows employees to work remotely up to two days per week.

We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?

The biggest societal change that needs to happen in order for the future of work to be successful for both employees and employers is leading with trust and empathy. The last two years have shown us that employees can be trusted to do their work effectively and efficiently while remote. Employers should trust that they’ve hired a smart, responsible, and reliable workforce to churn out creative ideas that move the business forward since it’s been proven time and time again.

When business leaders lead with trust and empathy, it can have a tremendous positive impact on employees’ mental health, team success, and business longevity. If leaders or CEOs can’t be empathetic to what is going on in their employees’ personal and professional lives, then they’re subject to increased turnover and losing out on top talent in such a competitive job market. Employees need to know that their leaders have their best interests in mind and care about their success, not just their ability to churn out products.

This was something we saw first-hand when we announced the merging of our two Massachusetts offices into one centralized North American headquarters in Somerville’s Assembly Row. Employees had a lot of questions and wanted reassurance that business operations and culture wouldn’t change. Being empathetic and taking the time to listen to my employees’ concerns and reservations, led to a successful move this past fall and even helped to change many of our plans for the office for the better by implementing their feedback.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

PUMA’s brand philosophy is “Forever Faster” and the energy that this brings to our team fuels my optimism about the future of our brand. This spans everything we do — from product creation to marketing and every discipline in between. We need to be faster than ever in the way we react and adapt to the changing world around us and how we work together — which requires a laser focus and a clear understanding of business priorities.

Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?

The biggest way employers can help improve their employee’s mental health and wellbeing is by remaining open, empathetic, and flexible. Giving employees the space to feel seen and heard is really important as we continue to navigate COVID-19 variants and uncertainties about returning to the office full-time.

Quick steps business leaders can take include:

  • Set aside time where employees can talk about what they’re feeling and what their concerns are.
  • Implement flexibility into employees’ schedules. Hybrid work policies are a great start but, take it a step further. Allow employees to work with their managers to create a schedule that works for them, even if it’s outside the set hybrid work model.
  • Set up no video/no meeting hours. At PUMA, our core in-person meeting hours help employees take a call on the road or commute during a less hectic travel time.

It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?

When I hear about “The Great Resignation” or similar headlines, I like to think about the four principles I live and work by: being fair, honest, positive and creative. I believe these four principles align with what leaders and CEOs should actually be focused on. When you remain fair, honest, positive (as much as we can during a global pandemic), and creative, you can solve anything — even an evolving culture.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”

  1. Increased focus on leading with empathy. As previously mentioned, I’m convinced that true empathy and spending more time listening to your employees will become a bigger piece of leadership in the future. Employees are our #1 asset and to retain, develop and attract the best, great leaders must engage employees in a more meaningful way than ever before. The most recent example of this for me was moving into our new North American HQ. The strategy for the move was shaped by listening to our employee base, including their concerns, fears, excitement and interests — which ultimately led to a successful move that I believe will be a game changer for the PUMA brand here in North America.
  2. More technology advances will allow remote and in-person collaboration to occur seamlessly. The need for technology that allows us to work in-person and remote and still collaborate as if we were all in-person is an ongoing issue. One way in which we’ve done this already at PUMA is by adapting the technology that we offer in our physical HQ space, as well as navigating how our groups work together and collaborate in a hybrid environment. Both audio and visual tools are needed to make the meeting experience cohesive for both the in-person and at-home employees. So, we’ve stepped up our tech to adhere to the need and trend, which includes video monitors in all major conference rooms that can work with Zoom or Teams, and state-of-the-art audio systems.
  3. Flexibility won’t be going anywhere, even in retail. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that flexibility trumps everything. Whether it’s juggling the need to work from home, new protocols for our retail stores & associates, or dealing with the supply chain issues we’ve all faced, staying nimble and adaptable to the changing conditions has been paramount. Those companies that can pivot quickly, and have the fortitude to work through changes and challenges, will continue to win moving forward.
  4. Increased importance on DE&I and amplifying employee voices. Helping to ensure a diverse and inclusive organization and corporate footprint will continue to be important in all industries. We’ll see more organizations enhance internal and external DE&I efforts, by partnering with local organizations and universities and setting up internal groups to amplify voices across the organization, instead of just one industry, race, or gender.
  5. Leading with transparency and consistent communication. Similarly to what we saw at the onset of the pandemic, overcommunication continues to be a necessary step in the future of work. The use of video calls, virtual town halls, senior team meetings and regular email communication — kept all of PUMA’s employees engaged and comforted despite the looming uncertainty of COVID-19. Being in the loop, allows employees to feel reassured that business leaders have their best interests in mind and are focused on employee wellbeing. Leading with transparency and consistent communication will be important as we navigate the ever changing workplace.

I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?

“Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it” is a personal favorite of mine. I think this is so true and being around sports my entire life, I’ve seen it in action. Successful athletes, and people in business, always stumble and must find their inner fortitude to overcome injuries, mistakes, unfortunate circumstances, better competition, you name it. But it’s the ride, and those times in particular, that shape who you are and what you’re made of.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.

James Pitaro, president & CEO of ESPN. I haven’t been able to visit their HQ in Bristol, so a perfect meeting would be getting a tour of the place, saying hi to some of their great on-air talent and basically talking sports the entire day. As a kid that grew up watching SportsCenter religiously and knowing very early on in life that I wanted to find a job where watching ESPN was part of the gig, that would be one helluva day.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

Readers can connect with me on LinkedIn and follow PUMA’s brand channels to stay up to date on our latest partnerships and announcements:

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.