Building Spaces

How we used collaborative design to create a vibrant and inclusive office

A historic ship repair warehouse transformed into Gusto’s new SF headquarters. [Footage by Will Lopez]

We were working on top of each other — crammed into two floors of an old office space in SOMA, fighting for space, slippers everywhere. Our small startup had outgrown its humble home, and we were only getting bigger.

It was time to find a new home, and fast. Typical office build-outs take 9–12 months, but startups often condense this process into 6–9 months. Gusto was aiming to complete its build-out within four months. No pressure, right?

Here at Gusto, we’re pretty darn good at building online tools for small businesses. But designing an office was a totally new challenge. As a brand designer, I spend my time focusing on our marketing growth, not the growth of our employees or our physical space. And now I was tasked with designing an office space, a place where I (and over 250 other Gusto employees) would spend 8+ hours a day.

My fellow designer, Jason, and I were originally brought onto the office design project to help with some aesthetic decisions, but our role quickly expanded and evolved. We saw this project as a perfect opportunity to apply design thinking — digging deeper into the needs of the company and exploring unique ways to bring the Gusto culture into the new space, while creating a system we could infuse into future offices.

Old bones, new challenges

What do a historic ship repair warehouse and a bunch of folks passionate about solving problems for small businesses have in common? More than you’d expect. The builders of the past have passed the torch onto a new generation of builders—but we’re builders of a different sort. We’re working to create a world where work empowers a better life.

Pier 70 is considered the most intact industrial complex west of the Mississippi! Building 113, our new home, was a machine shop in a past life.

We started with a historic warehouse on Pier 70 in the Dogpatch with huge potential. This building has had so many lives already — originally used for ship building and repair during WWII, left unoccupied for years before being scheduled for demolition, and now a home for over 250 Gusto employees.

So, how do you design an office space that’s all your own?

Step 1: Involve the company

First things first: We needed to involve those who would be using the space on a day-to-day basis. That’s right, the slipper-clad small-business-obsessed folks I mentioned earlier. Design by consensus is tricky and can end up diluting a vision, but designing a space without input from its users is riskier. We took the pulse of the company through a series of group brainstorms, ensuring that we were all in sync and surfacing opportunities we may have otherwise overlooked. We’re a quirky, vibrant, passionate bunch at Gusto, and it was time our office embodied our values and personality.

We broke out the post-it’s and brainstormed on topics ranging from the look and feel of the office, to how to spotlight our customers. 💡

By creating an open forum for employees to voice their opinions, we were able to collect input and identify trends. Getting their thoughts up front seriously paid off. The insights we gleaned from the brainstorms helped us make decisions on everything, from conference room names, to cozy nooks, to couch fabrics and more. When everyone was finally able to experience the space for themselves, they saw elements of their ideas sprinkled throughout. It allowed them to feel more connected to the space because they had a hand in the design.

Step 2: Extract key insights

After the brainstorms, we sifted through our learnings. There was no shortage of evidence that our previous office was no longer enabling folks to do their best work, and the majority of the feedback was a direct response to that.

After culling together everyone’s expectations, we crafted a list of non-negotiables:

  • Bring our customers to the forefront
  • Accommodate and encourage collaboration
  • Visually inspire all teams
  • Offer areas for decompression and quiet work
  • Create an office that is dynamic and transformative
  • Curate a space that is comfortable without sacrificing sophistication
Jason and I pulled together mood boards for each space, along with goals, functional requirements, and the feelings each space should evoke.

After distilling these takeaways, we created a single source of truth detailing each space in the office. This documentation became a shared visual language between our team, the decision makers at Gusto, and Gensler, the interior design firm we worked with. It set a north star for all decisions and reviews moving forward.

Step 3: Keep everyone updated and excited

Whether the space you’re working on is a single conference room in an existing office, or the buildout of an entirely new building, it’s important to keep the energy and momentum up. At Gusto, we created a Slack channel that was open to the company in which they could post questions, and in which we could pepper them with updates and process shots. We shared our progress during company-wide All Hands, but kept a few surprises under wraps until the big move.

Step 4: Evolve together

Unless you have a massive budget or an insanely generous timeline, it’s unlikely that everything will be 100% complete for day one. We did our best to make it clear that Gusto’s buildout would have phases, and shared timelines for “Day Two Updates,” or updates that would be made after our initial move-in. An office design is never complete. Teams grow and expand, cultures and needs shift, and a space needs to evolve with it.

The finished product

Here are some of the approaches we used to design a space that took into account the needs we outlined above.

Softening the industrial space with cozy features

One of the main takeaways from the brainstorms was that everyone just wanted a cozy space. Work needed to feel like home. For us, “home” translates to comfortable, warm and approachable, mature but not pretentious. Areas for quiet work and decompression were in high demand. Greenery and natural materials came up again and again. These recurring themes guided us as we filled the office with nooks and living room spaces, each decked out with comfortable yet functional furniture for every working style.

The office features lots of nooks and cozy spaces to kick up your feet and get down to work. [Photos by Jenna Carando]
We partnered with a Gusto customer, Planted Design, to add a living wall to our reception area, softening the industrial space. [Photos by Jenna Carando]

All-hands come together to spotlight our customers

One of our non-negotiables in the space was spotlighting our customers. Our customer love is what fuels us — Gusto exists to improve their lives, helping them to focus on running their business while we keep their payroll, HR, and benefits running smoothly.

Camellia’s initial mockup of the mural on the wall.

We took over the 40-ft long wall in the All-Hands space and transformed it into our largest customer spotlight. Our goal was for all hands to paint the all-hands mural. We created a paint-by-number collaborative mural, illustrated by our very own Camellia Neri, that brought our customers to life — from the accountant to the barista; from the vet to the techie. During the first week in the new office, all of Gusto’s employees were invited to help paint the wall!

Gusto employees break out the paint brushes and participate in the paint-by-numbers collaborative mural 🎨 [Photos by Jenna Carando]

Infusing our brand and personality

The idea of a neon sign came up in one of the brainstorms, packing a whole lot of meaning. The phrase itself is a play on our mission: to create a world where work empowers a better life. The neon is both a nod to our employees and customers, exuding passion, vibrancy and energy. It’s also a subtle reference to “Open” signs seen in the windows of small businesses across the country. I worked with a local neon sign artist to transform my Live with Gusto lettering into this glowing brand moment (a total dream project for me!)

We visited the construction site with a 6x6ft print out of the sign to test visibility and legibility throughout the office.
The neon sign lights up the upper mezzanine ✨ [Photo by Jenna Carando]

In San Francisco and Denver alike, we use our conference rooms as another opportunity to spotlight our customers. Rooms are small business themed, and the signage we used is based on old-school signs used by small businesses.

A few of my favorite conference room names: Donut Factory 🍩, Bait & Tackle 🎣, and Surf Shack 🏄‍ [Photo by Jenna Carando]

Ever-evolving

We’re excited to continue to improve the office, incorporating our customers and more brand moments in the future. Gusto is growing quickly, and the foundation we’ve created with this office will allow us to expand to new spaces in a way that’s true to us. As I write this, a new space is being constructed in Denver to hold our ever-growing teams.

In the meantime, we have a front-row seat to the exciting changes coming to Pier 70. Today, this historic pier is a mix of vacant land and deteriorating warehouses with some big plans for the future. Within the next few years, Pier 70 will become an open waterfront full of trails, maker spaces, homes, and community events.

A true team effort

Turning this historic warehouse on the Dogpatch’s Pier 70 into our new home was an enormous effort and the result of so many smart, creative contributors. We’re so grateful for all the partners and collaborators who helped us bring this space to life.

Gusto’s “Living Room.” [Photo by Jenna Carando]

What’s next for Gusto?

We’re currently hiring for tons of roles (including design!) and we’d love to have you along for the ride. We have the opportunity to shape the future of Gusto together ✨