The key takeaway about the new headquarters of Gusto, a start-up that provides payroll and HR services to more than 60,000 small companies, is that design firm Gensler knew just how far to take the homogenising.

Exhibit A: It might be a behemoth today, but the company was born in a house in Palo Alto. As the co-founders grew up in no-shoes houses, they decided to bring their tradition to their new home, and kept it as the company grew. With every expansion, they didn’t want to dilute the spirit of authenticity that propelled them during the company’s small beginnings… and socks became the reminder of choice. ‘They wanted their office to feel like a home, as that’s where everyone is their most comfortable and authentic selves,’ said Kelly Dubisar, Gensler’s design director. ‘Everyone being shoeless is a great equalizer!’

But then there’s exhibit B: the open-office backlash is having a moment, with many in the industry increasingly calling for the return of cubicles in order to save dwindling attention spans – Apple Park employees were said to be ‘in revolt’ over Norman Foster’s valley of a plan in their new headquarters. Gensler saw this as an opportunity to draw a flexible line: in order to make working styles as democratic as possible, instead of equalising they decided to respect the preferred layout of each team member. During the design process, every one of the 500 employees was offered a choice from a variety of spaces, both open and enclosed, public or private, to accommodate their focus styles.

That wasn’t the only part of the process they were involved in – leave it to an HR services company to figure out how to successfully integrate its human resources into key transformations. The Gensler team led several workshops with them, creating a menu of furniture and finishes for review that would come to define the look and feel of the new space. ‘One of our company values is ‘we are all builders,’ and by including everyone at every step, employees were engaged and understood that we’re truly embodying our values,’ said Gusto CEO Josh Reeves.

Gensler then created an Opening Day tour using VR technology, allowing the employees to understand early on what the spaces would look like – and, most importantly, to ensure that every working style and need would be met.

Put together, this highly customised process gave employees a sense of ownership and connectedness that translated into surprising choices. Given their pick of names for the conference rooms, the employees also took an intriguing decision: instead of selecting highlights from their own company, they named them after their clients and the milestones of their small businesses – that’s where seemingly odd names like The Gelateria and The Bait and Tackle Shop come from.

In other words, what does an office designed by its employees look like? Like the many things that make the whole of a company culture similar and the many more that make its parts so different.