Centene president: COVID changed our plans for an East Coast HQ in Charlotte

·3 min read
The lobby area of what was to be the 800,000-square-foot Centene East Coast headquarters at University City Research Park in Charlotte in 2021. (Jeff Siner/jsiner@charlotteobserver.com)

Editor’s note: Brent Layton is President and Chief Operating Officer for Centene Corporation, which announced Thursday that it is backing out of plans to create its East Coast hub in Charlotte.

Like most Americans, I could have never imagined how the COVID-19 pandemic would transform our personal and professional lives into a more virtual existence. From shopping to exercising, a click of the mouse or a tap on our phone now replaces trips to the grocery store and the gym. The use of telehealth services skyrocketed during the pandemic and remains above pre-pandemic levels. And for millions of people, their workplace also became virtual as they transitioned from an office building to a home office. While we may fully embrace in-person shopping and other activities in the years to come, the workforce environment looks to be permanently altered.

Prior to the pandemic, full-time or even part-time remote work was a rarity, if allowed at all. Centene did not permit our employees to work from home, each having a desk in a local office. That policy went out the window when the pandemic forced lockdowns across the country. At the time, we had no idea if it was possible to successfully accomplish our goals working full-time from home. Yet here we are over two years later and we can confidently say “yes.”

At Centene, we know that an engaged and energized workforce is a prerequisite for a successful company. We also know that the pandemic has changed people’s lives, leading to a re-examination of their work-life balance. It is why we have spoken extensively with our employees to get an understanding of what workplace environment suits their needs. Today, almost 90% of our workforce is working fully remote or in a hybrid work environment. By offering more remote and hybrid work options, we can remain competitive, retain and attract top talent. Since 2019, our employees are happier, leading to a 16% decrease in our voluntary turnover rate and a 6% increase in our employee engagement score.

While we’ve adapted to this new normal, our performance remained as strong as ever and our team continues to focus on our members and partnering with our providers while increasing the quality of our services. The ability to accomplish that remotely and in hybrid working arrangements means less physical office space is now needed. As part of this new working model, we recently announced we intend to reduce our nationwide real estate footprint by 70%, leading to Centene’s decision not to move forward with establishing our corporate East Coast headquarters in Charlotte.

I don’t doubt that other companies, both nationally and regionally, are having similar conversations with their employees and are adopting workplace flexibility to meet changing expectations and keep current employees while reducing their real estate footprint.

While our corporate real estate plans have shifted, our dedication to transforming the health of the communities we serve, including in North Carolina, remains on solid ground. We believe the steps taken to retain our top talent will allow us to focus on advancing that mission and continuing the high level of service expected of us. By offering flexible work options, we hope to expand our recruitment pool as we look to fill 200 open positions here in Charlotte to join our 1,700 employees across the state.

In the months ahead, we intend to work with our state and local partners to identify a new owner or tenant for our state-of-the art building which offers a turnkey solution for its future owner.

Centene has long admired Charlotte’s entrepreneurial spirit and the talented workforce that populates the city’s business community. We remain committed to serving our members through our local health plans as we work to transform the health of communities, one person at a time.