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From scientific to activity based office management: a mirage of change

Lee D. Parker (School of Accounting, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia)

Journal of Accounting & Organizational Change

ISSN: 1832-5912

Article publication date: 6 June 2016




The purpose of this paper is to examine the phenomenon of activity-based working (ABW), an office design and management system that has emerged in the past 20 years. It investigates its manifest and underlying agendas with a view to determining its degree of cost management focus and scientific management foundations.


The paper uses historical and website analysis methodologies for investigating historical office management philosophies and practices, as well as contemporary office design and management philosophies and related ABW practices and discourse. These are examined through the theoretical lenses of governmentality and impression management theories.


Despite a rhetoric of staff empowerment, ABW’s dominant agenda is overhead cost reduction and operating cost management. This reflects scientific management principles of early twentieth-century office design and management. Cost efficiencies and productivity emerge as key ABW output foci. While ABW adopters and advocates present ABW as a desirable staff satisfaction and operations facilitator, the cost agenda nonetheless commands centre stage.

Research limitations/implications

Accounting research into the office and its processes is much needed. This has been largely neglected in favour of line management and factory floor costing and accountability systems. In a world dominated by service industries, the office as a centre of organisational and economic activity merits researchers’ greater attention.

Practical implications

Contemporary office design and functioning developments merit greater recourse to and acknowledgement of their historic roots. Then, practitioners can better design and implement systems that build on past knowledge and learnings. While such innovations as ABW may carry potential for improved organisational performance, care is needed with respect to their balancing of agendas and suitability for their institutional and cultural environments.

Social implications

Organisational work has become a dominant part of social life in most economies today. Such innovations as ABW must be considered in terms of the societal culture into which they are introduced: how they reflect and adapt to that culture and what impacts they may also have on the culture itself. This includes dimensions such as organisational and self-control, as well as personal and organisational accountability.


This study presents itself as one of the very few refereed research studies of ABW currently available in the accounting, management or property research literatures. It also represents one of the very few studies of the office in the accounting research literature internationally.



This paper forms the basis for the author’s plenary presentation at the Global Accounting and Organizational Change conference in United Arab Emirates, November 2014. Subsequently, it has also been presented in 2015 at research seminars at Royal Holloway University of London, the University of Tasmania and RMIT University Melbourne. The author is also grateful to Professor Ingrid Jeacle, the University of Edinburgh, for her comments and advice.


Parker, L.D. (2016), "From scientific to activity based office management: a mirage of change", Journal of Accounting & Organizational Change, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 177-202.



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Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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