DURHAM – Office workspaces evolved from desks to cubicles to wide-open spaces with standing desks to … what in the days of social distancing and health fears triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic? A Durham company believes it has the answer.

Neu Concepts, a privately held company with a 40,000 square foot design and manufacturing facility in Durham, has made a business pivot to embrace office fittings and design that enable coworking while observing social distancing requirements. The privately held company also is designing custom “presentation sets” for companies that want a more polished environment for business operations and virtual conferences.

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Neu Concepts’ vision for post-pandemic office space (right) vs. before.

Neu Concepts is hoping to have in place options that companies will pick as they either return workers to the office or provide them for more tools to work from home. 

Getting a financial lifeline through a Paycheck Protection Plan loan from the Small Business Administration helped finance the switch, too, and the company managed to keep its entire workforce of 24 employed.

Its previous focus had been custom-designed booths and for trade shows and public events as well as custom office interiors. But as COVID-19 seized the world’s attention and public events were cancelled, Neuconcepts management quickly changed directions to capitalize on emerging demand for distance-friendly offices.

Wife-and-husband team Cathy and Rudy Hofknech founded Neu Concepts in 2011 and operate it as managing partners, she having experince in technology marketing and he having worked in the trade shows industry.

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Neu Concepts founders Cathy and Rudy Hofknecht

In an exclusive Q&A with WRAL TechWire, Ms. Hofknecht talked about the thinking for the pivot and how COVID-19 has affected the company.

  • This seems to be a significant pivot for your company – why did you make this decision?

While this is a bit of a pivot, we see it as a natural extension of what we do. We currently design and build both custom office interiors and tradeshow booths, so we have the proper staffing and equipment to do this including a design and production team, cabinetmakers, a full cabinetmaking shop complete with a CNC machine and laser cutter.

  • How does this move fit with your “neuvision” for trade shows, etc?

We will continue to focus on trade shows as the industry comes back. We currently have many large inhouse clients who we work with – building exhibits for them and managing all the logistics for their event programs.

  • Do you believe traditional trade shows/exhibitions will return – if so, when, and how will they change? Looks like you are anticipating changes.

I do believe that trade shows and exhibitions will return, however I expect it will take some time. They are in the same category as large events like concerts and sporting events, where social distancing is not easy. In addition, most people who attend events travel to get to them.

In the meantime, we expect there will be a rise in more virtual events and the desire to enhance the production of them. For example, when we first shifted to work-from-home, many folks simply were recording from their home offices. We saw this on the news, with celebrities and also for business meetings. As this becomes a more significant and regular way of hosting interactions and events, we are seeing a desire for more customized production sets, as well as more polished visual presentations.

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Neu Concepts design for Epic Games

This is an area we have also been working in for quite some time, as you can see from the broadcast stage we produced for Epic Games.

Another example of a stage we built for a live event was the one we designed for Cree’s Investor day.

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Neu Concepts design for Crees Investor Day

  • It appears you have responded rapidly to vast changes triggered by COVID-19 – why did you do so? What triggered the response?

As we have observed concerns about re-opening, we have been studying what companies are doing in Asia and Europe and recognized the need to adapt workspaces to support our new normal. Reimagining workspaces includes creating protective barriers and providing visual cues that help reinforce social distancing.

We also saw a need for companies to do this in a thoughtful way to instill confidence in their employees and customers, who might be feeling some anxiety as stay-at-home orders are relaxed.

  • Do you see opportunities for retail businesses in addition to office space?

There is definitely opportunity for retail businesses as well as for hospitality, museums and other public spaces where people gather, as well as in other work settings such as healthcare offices and laboratories. Our focus creating custom solutions to complement their spaces.

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Barriers adorn a conference table as designed by Neu Concepts

  • Did you design these products internally or partner with another firm?

We have designers on staff. The principles of design for interiors are the same as they are for trade show displays. Both are environments where people come together and interact. We also have the ability to partner with architects and property managers – taking a collaborative approach to designing solutions. We have always believed a collaborative approach is best, with more ideas leading to the best solutions. This is the same approach we take with our interior spaces.

  • Where are the products made?

Our products are built in our shop in Durham, where we have a 40,000 square foot facility.

  • How did you finance this pivot? Did you have to raise capital? Get a PPP loan?

As a company, we are fortunate to have always been in a good position financially. We were able to get a PPP loan which came through on April 15, which has enabled us to keep all of our staff.

  • Have you added any personnel or looking to add more workers?

At the moment, we are not planning on adding additional staff. If we see a significant demand, that could change.

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