Early in 2020, Centene had a plan for its new East Coast Headquarters in Charlotte, NC. The new building, which would accommodate a growing team serving the brisk Southeast healthcare insurance market, would mirror the high-rise footprint and operations of the company’s Clayton, MO headquarters and replicate its success in a new location.

That plan did not include a pandemic.

The fast-moving global crisis, however, did not slow Centene’s momentum. In February of 2020, LS3P proposed a campus design strategy that would inform every decision to follow: to shift from the idea of a high-rise building on a leveled site that could be built anywhere, to a midrise design integrating as fully as possible with its forested site, weaving the architecture into the environment. The Centene team embraced this direction, and in the ensuing months, this design decision created ripple effects supporting health, safety, and productivity, with profound positive impacts.

To describe COVID-19 as a “significant disruptor” is an understatement.  The pandemic has humbled those who are most gifted at forecasting and predicting, and has shone a spotlight on systems that weren’t working. In overturning the status quo, however, the COVID-19 era has created opportunities for lasting change. Centene’s leadership laid the groundwork for a monumental shift in the way the company worked in the summer of 2021 in tandem with the evolving design of its new Charlotte facility, and the result is a workplace focused on wellness, beauty, productivity, and community.

Rooting the Campus in Nature

The initial strategy of harmonizing with the 80-acre site led to compounding benefits. Because the design was driven by what the building needed to be, not the constraints of a high-rise footprint, the design team focused on blurring the lines between indoors and out. The constant interplay of nature and architecture creates calming views  and allows abundant natural light in the interiors. The strong connection to the environment spills out into outdoor workspaces designed for seamless transitions from indoor desks to outdoor meeting room or café tables. These workspaces are intentional and programmable, from defined meeting spaces in the central courtyard to a tiered amphitheater under a dramatic cantilever.

Centene invested in a fully wireless campus, allowing movement, freedom, and flexibility to select the right work station for the right task. These outdoor workspaces allow employees to take advantage of Charlotte’s mild climate during the workday, provide opportunities for informal interactions with people from other departments, reduce density in the interior spaces, and lower the risk of transmission for additional peace of mind. Access to nature is a key wellness benefit in any workplace; in the COVID era, it is vital for alleviating stress and allowing employees to self-select a workspace that works best for their needs.

Re-imagining Circulation

In a high-rise, one elevator core typically serves the entire building. In addition to constraining the floor plates, this configuration requires people to share small spaces in transit to their work location and adds anxiety to the workday when local transmission rates are high. A midrise building, however, allows much greater flexibility. Centene’s floor plate, influenced by the need to provide safer, more comfortable, more open circulation, has eight circulation cores including 16 escalators and three open stair zones. Employees can take a variety of routes to get anywhere in the building, allowing autonomy and increasing the odds of chance “creative collisions” with colleagues that build connection and make the work day enjoyable. The appealing stairs encourage physical activity, and the escalators increase both lateral and vertical connections between floors without crisscrossing.

Beyond the perception of safety, which is important to easing stress, Centene’s investment in alternative methods of circulation reduces the density in any given space while adding beauty and movement to the interiors. Twelve additional escalators in the parking decks also help to streamline circulation and get people where they need to go, quickly and safely.

Creating Breathing Room

In a traditional office space, assigned workstations are laid out for maximum efficiency, and employees are often close together. Shared amenities such as coffee stations can quickly turn into pinch points, and close quarters are less than ideal during a pandemic (or the average flu season). Centene’s floor plate orients workstations off-grid, allowing a much greater variety of configurations. Workstations are arranged randomly or in pinwheels, so no two employees are directly facing each other at their desks. The free-address model also allows employees to self-select workstations based on the day’s tasks, allowing for flexibility to accommodate a range of space needs and comfort levels. With new construction, the team was able to advocate for 10’ ceiling heights; the spaces feel expansive and airy while allowing maximum adaptability over time.  Exposed structure and open ceiling volumes make the workspaces feel brighter, more open, and better ventilated.

The design also incorporates a break room in every wing – two per floor – with prime forest views. The break rooms are specifically designed to allow ease of movement around double sets of appliances centered on large islands to minimize congestion. Break room seating is located away from the circulation, with options to be within the space or on the fringes yet still connected to the activity.

The designated seating for the first phase of the campus is 1,800 people; however, the free-address strategy, fully wired campus, and abundance of dedicated outdoor work stations combine to create a multiplier of 1.6- greatly expanding campus capacity and maintaining a comfortable density in the building.

Rethinking the Private Office

Centene’s existing workplace model was heavily weighted towards traditional private offices. In exploring a new workplace dynamic focused on free-addressing, open workstations, and indoor/outdoor locations, the company took a big step outside of its comfort zone by nearly eliminating private offices on the Charlotte campus. Though a few assigned management zones and bullpens are still required, less than 10% of the office space in the new campus is assigned. Enclosed offices still exist, and employees can check into these when heads-down focus work or privacy is required; however, when unclaimed for the day, these offices can be used as huddle rooms, shareable collaborative areas, or spaces to join a virtual meeting without disturbing others. Eliminating assigned private offices effectively increases meeting space on the campus tenfold at no additional cost.

Campus-wide technology tools make this system seamless and transparent; employees can check in at any location so their colleagues can see where people are working for the day. This amenity is a huge selling point for talented young tech employees who are accustomed to mobility and digital connections.  The ability to dial into a meeting from anywhere on campus is further supported by Centene’s investment in state-of-the-art technology and a fully wireless campus.

Providing Creature Comforts

Beyond the ability to choose the right workplace for the right task, Centene also wanted its employees to be able to feel as safe and as comfortable at the office as in their living rooms. An enticing array of furniture options can help employees create a place within the office where they feel productive, secure, and professional – and may represent a real upgrade from the couch or the Zoom background at home. Centene’s furniture selections offer options scaled to every employee, from couches to casual lounge areas to laptop zones. Centene recognized that not every employee has an ideal home workspace, and wanted to provide areas for productivity and collaboration that feel as safe and as comfortable as a home office or a local coffee shop.

Food is another key attraction. The design upends the traditional corporate cafeteria with a multi-volume space – elevating the idea of a food hall – that serves as a gateway through the campus. All three sides are connected to nature and outdoor terraces, and the strategic location in a primary foot traffic zone tempts people to move through the atrium and food hall to the outdoors. Seven unique food offerings within the expansive space offer something for everyone, with multiple indoor and outdoor seating options so that people can select their level of distance, gather with colleagues, or linger at a patio table for focus work over a cup of coffee.

Focusing on a Holistic Approach to Wellness

With its focus on medical insurance, Centene was committed to designing for wellness in its work environment from the outset through WELL Certification for the entire campus. This decision required operational shifts like re-writing the employee handbook in addition to design considerations, but the resulting workplace will yield substantial benefits in terms of attracting, retaining, and caring for the top-tier talent that allows the company to thrive. Centene also decided to invest in certifying the entire campus, not just the building; the added levels of complexity which come with making sure everything from the guard houses to the mail room support campus wellness reflects the commitment to doing things the right way, not the easy way, at every turn.

Wellness is multifaceted, and encompasses physical health, mental health, and peace of mind. The design features and operational strategies that support these elements include everything from indoor air quality to the onsite early childhood development center so that parents can feel confident that their children are secure and close during the workday. Beauty, too, matters; Centene has invested heavily in two spectacular art installations that anchor the campus and provide meditative focal points. One nine-story art piece in the atrium is based on an equation representing how leaves grow, appropriate to this “tree house” setting. The second is a kinetic sculpture that wraps the second-story café volume, representing subtle movement in nature. Both pieces celebrate nature-based themes in a way that will offer new perspectives through the life of the building, and provide opportunities for visual release and reflection within a busy workday.

Designing for Resilience

Navigating complex decisions about the future of work in an ever-changing environment has required open mindedness, trust, research, and continuous communication. Fortunately, from the beginning of the design process, one thing has remained clear: good design yields benefits that far outlast any particular era, event, or trend. In creating a flexible, adaptable, beautiful campus which is rooted in nature and focused on providing a stellar workplace for all employees, Centene has created a place that will endure. The high ceilings, agile floor plates, and demountable walls can be easily reconfigured to reflect future growth or changes in use; furthermore, every inch of the building – because it is designed for wellness – makes its employees safer, more comfortable, and more productive. Every element of the design serves more than one purpose; the things that make it healthier also make it more beautiful, and the things that make it beautiful also make it more efficient and productive.

Good design with good intent is always a wise investment; the accumulating benefits of each smart decision amplify the overarching goal to create an unparalleled workplace. In doing the hard work of providing an employee-focused campus supporting flexibility, wellness, and collaboration, Centene is well positioned to move confidently into an optimistic future.

About Nathan, Paul, and Patrick

Principal Nathan Daniel, AIA, LEED AP serves as the firm’s Workplace Practice Leader. He excels developing and maintaining long, productive relationships with clients. He is responsible for the design of the overall project vision in multiple project sectors, including corporate commercial, faith, hospitality, and mixed-use developments.

Nathan’s role is one of leadership and guidance, leading the project team from visioning through project completion. He is also a mediator, helping to foster trust and respect between the stakeholders. Nathan recently oversaw the completion of the new Elevation Church global headquarters in Ballantyne and AvidXchange’s new headquarters at the Music Factory just outside of uptown Charlotte.  Nathan is the Principal in Charge for the new Centene East Coast Headquarters campus in Charlotte, NC.

Associate Principal Paul Koska, AIA, LEED GA, offers a breadth of experience in corporate office, commercial mixed-use, and wellness projects. His projects are often complex in terms of design, coordination, and mix of uses and have diverse and extensive project teams. Paul is involved from the earliest phases of project development, producing visual imagery and modeling to convey project concepts. As an integral part of a project team, he carries out the work plan of the project leader and translates design intent into construction documentation. Paul also communicates and coordinates with subconsultants and jurisdictional authorities. His energetic and positive personality bring momentum to the team’s success.

As a former member of a municipal planning and development department, Paul understands how to build a partnership to resolve issues during the review of development and construction plans. Paul is the Project Manager for the new Centene East Coast Headquarters in Charlotte, NC.

Associate Patrick Cooley is adept at quickly advancing project development through early concept explorations and authentic client engagement. With expertise in programming, space planning, detailing, finishes selection, and design coordination, Patrick delivers interior architecture solutions to achieve his clients’ goals and visions; his interactive presentations draw the team into thoughtful design discussions that lead to world-class solutions.

Patrick’s diverse portfolio includes hospitality projects, large sports venue renovations, and comprehensive renovations of commercial  buildings, all of which have informed his work for Centene. Patrick has been instrumental in developing the interior strategy for the Centene campus; his role involves interiors project management, client-facing design coordination, and in-depth construction coordination between the general contractor and consultants.