The cubicle is undergoing a makeover. And even some cubicle manufacturers concede it's about time. The ubiquitous workstation has served...

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The cubicle is undergoing a makeover.

And even some cubicle manufacturers concede it’s about time.

The ubiquitous workstation has served companies for more than four decades. Despite its blandness, businesses embraced the cube’s simple functionality and relative cost-savings. No need to blow out walls and remodel when you could plant a cubicle farm.

But knowledge- and service-based industries that put a premium on collaboration increasingly view the cubicle as a barrier to interaction and productivity. And a new breed of workers, weaned on peer-to-peer computer file sharing, always-on wireless hot spots and instant access to information, has pushed companies to rethink cubicles, design consultants and others say.

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For many, the conventional cubicle is a quaint, even contradictory anachronism. How can you think outside the box when you’re working inside one?

The modern cubicle-less floor plan started gaining traction even as cubicle production and sales reached their heights during the late 1990s dot-com era. Although cubicles allow for quick accommodation of personnel, some companies were taking a dim view of the cube by 2000.

Muzak, the Fort Mill, S.C., company that pipes music to retail and other workplaces, was among them. It deployed a blend of shared, artsy workstations and glass offices when it moved into its 100,000-square-foot warehouse headquarters in 2000, following its relocation to South Carolina from Seattle

The company “created a city in a box,” based on the Italian piazza model, says Muzak’s marketing-campaign coordinator Karen Vigeland. That city grew over the last year, when the company added more than 100 employees and converted more warehouse space — without using conventional cubicles. The result is a complex of transparent offices and shared workstations set along boulevard-like aisles, all spilling into open areas.

The open architecture “allows for impromptu meetings … and a better exchange of ideas,” Vigeland says.

Last week, the Charlotte, N.C., design firm that helped configure Muzak’s digs embarked on its own makeover. Little Diversified Architectural Consulting will knock out walls to create a mix of low-wall cubicles, see-through offices and communal work tables, similar to another part of its building. The move reflects a broader trend away from installing cubicles to accommodate headcount.

“The idea is to move people, not walls,” says James Thompson, the firm’s interior-design director.

The standard cubicle environment is a language that signals “all the bad working behaviors,” says Christopher Budd of Studios Architecture in Washington. Those include isolation, false “entitlement to privacy,” and individual over collective achievement, he says.

His idyllic workplace borrows from a European model, where wireless laptops allow employees to work where needed — kind of a hipper version of the pre-cubicle office, without the rows of assigned identical desks and gray in-boxes.

“People feel everything needs to be done in one space,” he says. Ideally, “you’d be working all over the place.”

Budd finds an unlikely ally in James Ludwig, director of design at Steelcase, one of the nation’s leading cubicle manufacturers. The cubicle, Ludwig states, “is definitely due for a makeover.”

He says wireless networks, laptops and flat computer monitors have enabled manufacturers to tweak cubicle design. Older box monitors had to be shoved in a corner and dictated the cube’s right-angle shape.

As a designer whose mission is to “unfold the cube,” Ludwig would like to see the conventional cubicle become a Smithsonian exhibit.

High-end cubicles can cost $5,000 each, still far cheaper than buying enough space to build, wire and equip individual offices.

Despite their Dilbert-like statement to conformity, cubicles often are the most cost-effective and convenient option for partitioning workspace.