woman having a video call

How do Remote Workers Perform during COVID-19 Lockdowns?

*This blog is based on our paper published in the Information Technology and People journal.

Dr Xinying Yu | Senior Lecturer | School of Business Management, Royal Holloway, University of London
Prof Yuwen Liu | Professor | Institute of Technology Management, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan

With the advancement of technology in recent years, researchers have raised great interests in remote working in the business and management fields. Known also as teleworking, telecommuting, e-working, or flexible work arrangements (Morgan, 2004), remote working is defined as a flexible work arrangement in which employees work remotely from their offices or production facilities, employees have no direct contact with colleagues but can connect with them via technology (Di Martino and Wirth, 1990).

During COVID-19 pandemic, remote working has become a popular work arrangement for organisations. The increasing number of remote workers who interact with colleagues and customers using different technologies has exerted physical and psychological demands. Although technology enables work collaboration through video and teleconferencing via web applications and technologies, lack of social contact and face-to-face communication among employees in the virtual environment has been reported to cause feeling of professional isolation (e.g., Chamakiotis et al., 2013). Professional isolation is a situation when a remote worker experiences the perception of being ignored, which could negatively impact upon their well-being and performance, increase loneliness, reduce job satisfaction and may result in social and emotional distress (Marshall et al., 2007; Mulki and Jaramillo, 2011).

Empirical studies investigated the antecedents and outcomes of remote working have drawn mixed results. Some researchers have claimed that remote working with more flexibility, job autonomy and better work-life balance enhances workers’ wellbeing, job performance, job satisfaction and reduces turnover (e.g., Kelliher and Anderson, 2010; ter Hoeven and van Zoonen, 2015). Others, however, have argued that professional isolation may disproportionately leave remote workers out of the loop in office interactions (e.g., Grant et al., 2013; Vega and Brennan, 2000), consequently causing psychological and physical stress and hindering their job engagement and performance (Collins et al., 2016; Xanthopoulou et al., 2009).

Although the isolated remote working condition can be detrimental for employee’s attitudes and behaviors, how employees respond to this may vary greatly. A number of studies have identified that psychological hardiness protect employees against stress (Bartone, 2000; Hystad, 2011). The way that psychological hardiness is more effective in isolated working situation is because it is proved to influence how employees interact with their environment and promote effective coping for stressful situations with individual effort (Maddi, 2005).

This study used web-based questionnaires to collect data from 497 remote workers in financial industry in China during pandemic lockdowns, and aims to examine how remote workers perform. We conclude that perceived professional isolation among remote workers triggers their cynicism attitudes toward the meaningfulness of the job and the value of the organization, and in turn results in decreased task performance. Results of the moderation role of psychological hardiness in the relationship between professional isolation and task performance through cynicism support the propositions that although cynicism is expected to emerge from worker perceptions of isolated work environment characteristics and social interactions, these perceptions are filtered through the lens of personality, namely psychological hardiness, to affect individual work performance.

This study offers some practical implications for managers. First, to handle employees’ feeling of professional isolation and cynical attitude, the fundamental principle for managers is to help employees stay connected and maintain good interpersonal and work relationships while working remotely to limit their feelings of isolation. Online interpersonal and workplace activities can be promoted to effectively collaborate and communicate remote workers. Employee engagement programs can be introduced via online platforms, weekly news roundups, fun competition events and staff support surveys, etc. Social support networks among employees could reduce their perceptions of isolation and increase their confidence in conducting tasks by working through challenges, addressing problems, and building team cohesion.

Second, managers could consider reducing the impact of cynicism to improve job performance by introducing clear HR policy and practice to balance job demands (e.g., work pressure and emotional demands) on employees with job resources needed to deal with these demands (e.g., supervisory and organizational support). For instance, organizations could provide mental and well-being training to alleviate employees’ emotional and psychological distress caused by remote. Supportive managers could allocate manageable workloads, clarify task expectations, grant flexibility and autonomy, and provide timely and constructive performance feedback. Avoiding micromanagement could convey a sense of trust in remote working environments which might contribute to greater job performance.

Furthermore, given that psychological hardiness could be developed rather than inborn and hardy employees are more likely to cope with stressful and uncertain situations than unhardy ones, managers could design hardiness training programs to improve employees’ resilience and reduce burnout levels induced by cynicism. In addition, managers could cultivate an appropriate organizational culture to foster employee hardiness. Employee engagement programs could be used as a useful mechanism to build a hardy organizational culture. Managers should set up an example to develop their own hardiness and encourage a hardy workplace to respond to crises more effectively. Employees should be made aware that change is inevitable in a crisis, rising to the challenge and increasing their hardiness could help them cope with difficult situations.

Despite the limited data from financial industry in China and only individual level variables are included, we believe that this study adds value to the research on remote working in a crisis situation by examining the impact of professional isolation and cynicism on task performance and suggesting psychological hardiness as an important characteristic for employees to face challenging situation with courage and motivation.

References

Bartone, P.T. (2000), “Hardiness as a resiliency factor for United States forces in the Gulf War”, In J. M. Violanti, D. Paton, and C. Dunning (Eds.), Posttraumatic stress intervention: Challenges, issues and perspectives, Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas, pp. 115–133.

Chamakiotis, P., Dekoninck, E. A., and Panteli, N. (2013), “Factors influencing creativity in virtual design teams: An interplay between technology, teams and individuals”, Creativity and Innovation Management, Vol.22 No.3, pp.265-279.

Collins, A. M., Hislop, D., and Cartwright, S. (2016), “Social support in the workplace between teleworkers, office-based colleagues and supervisors”, New Technology, Work and Employment, Vol.31 No.2, pp.161-175.

Di Martino, V., & Wirth, L. (1990), “Telework: A new way of working and living”, International Labour Review, Vol.129 No.5, pp. 529–554.

Grant, C. A., Wallace, L. M., and Spurgeon, P. C. (2013), “An exploration of the psychological factors affecting remote e-worker’s job effectiveness, well-being and work-life balance”, Employee Relations, Vol.35, pp.527–546.

Hystad, S. W., Eid, J., and Brevik, J. I. (2011), “Effects of psychological hardiness, job demands, and job control on sickness absence: A prospective study”, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol.16 No.3, pp.265-278.

Kelliher, C., and Anderson, D. (2010), “Doing more with less? Flexible working practices and the intensification of work”, Human Relations, Vol.63 No.1, pp.83-106.

Maddi, S. R. (2005), “On hardiness and other pathways to resilience”, American Psychologist, Vol.60, pp.261–262.

Marshall, G. W., Michaels, C. E., and Mulki, J. P. (2007), “Workplace isolation: Exploring the construct and its measurement”, Psychology and Marketing, Vol.24 No.3, pp.195-223.

Morgan, R.E. (2004), “Teleworking: an assessment of the benefits and challenges”, European Business Review, Vol. 16 No. 4, pp. 344-357.

Mulki, J.P., and Jaramillo, F. (2011), “Workplace isolation: salespeople and supervisors in USA”, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 22 No. 04, pp. 902-923

ter Hoeven, C. L., and van Zoonen, W. (2015), “Flexible work designs and employee well-being: examining the effects of resources and demands”, New Technology, Work and Employment, Vol.30 No.3, pp.237-255.

Vega, R. P., Anderson, A. J., and Kaplan, S. A. (2015), “A within-person examination of the effects of telework”, Journal of Business and Psychology, Vol.30 No.2, pp.313-323.

Xanthopoulou, D., Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., and Schaufeli, W. B. (2009), “Reciprocal relationships between job resources, personal resources, and work engagement”, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Vol.74 No.3, pp.235-244.

Between Failure and Hope: Experiences of Digital Technologies for Engaging with Health Inequities in the Global South

DOS Research Centre is pleased to invite you to an event with its Distinguished Speaker Professor Sundeep Sahay, Professor of Information Systems, at the Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, Norway

16 November 2022 DOS Distinguished Speaker Lecture

Tea and Coffee from 13:30 Moore Auditorium, Moore Building, Royal Holloway, Egham Campus

Speaker: Prof Sundeep Sahay, University of Oslo, Norway

Engaging with health inequities in the Global South is a key priority, which is inscribed in a number of the SDGs, e.g. SDG3 (health and well-being for all), SDG5 (women’s equality and empowerment) and SDG10 (reduce inequality within and among countries). Digital technologies indeed have a role to play in supporting efforts to mitigate health inequities and contribute towards achieving these goals. But, what has been our experience till date? They oscillate between visions of deep despair with 90% of digital initiatives being branded as total or partial failures or extreme optimism with AI and Machine Learning being positioned as the silver bullet to address health challenges. A summary inference which can be drawn from experiences to date is that the potential of digital technologies to address health inequities has not been adequately materialized in practice, in the context of the Global South. Understanding what are some of the reasons underlying this inference and reflecting on what can be done about it, will be the focus of this talk. Sundeep will draw upon his 20+ years of experience of studying and working with health information systems in the Global South, to raise some relevant questions and seek to find approaches to engage with this urgent issue.

About

Sundeep Sahay is Professor of Information Systems at the Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, Norway. He currently holds affiliate appointments at the Centre of Sustainable Healthcare Education, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo and at the Information School, Sheffield University, UK. The focus of his work has been on the design, development, integration, use and sustainability of health information architectures in developing countries, with a primary focus in the Indian public health system. Sundeep has worked closely with policy makers, health programme managers and field level health functionaries. He has extensive experience with management of research projects involving partners from universities, public health sector, and also running an NGO.

close up photo of a digital image

DOS Digital Health Online Event

Professor Niki Panteli, Dr Nisreen Ameen, Dr Najmeh Hafezieh and Dr Philip Wu are pleased to invite you to the DOS Digital Health Online Event, joined by Key Speakers Professor Weizi (Vicky) Li, Henley Business School, and Dr Hajar Mozaffar, University of Edinburgh Business School.

Time: 1 December, 10:00 – 11:30am UK Time (Online via Microsoft Teams)

Agenda

Developing data-driven solutions in real-world healthcare management
Professor Weizi (Vicky) Li

Abstract

Data-driven solutions such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can improve health and care efficiency by augmenting human labour and enhancing productivity. This talk will cover a series of collaborative projects with NHS developing real-world data-driven healthcare applications and will focus on data-driven solutions to improve referral triage from primary to secondary care, and to reduce “do-not-attend” in secondary care outpatient management. We will discuss how AI/ML improve healthcare efficiency, patient outcomes and health inequality, challenges, and future opportunities.

Evolution of knowledge ecosystems in digital transformation of the health sector
Dr Hajar Mozaffar

Abstract

Digital transformation is now central to most health system strategies around the world; although policy makers and implementers generally agree on the potential of health information technology (HIT) to improve safety, quality, and efficiency of care, strategies for procurement, implementation, and optimization vary significantly across settings. Hence, large-scale HIT-enabled transformation programs have met with varying success, and there is no agreed strategy on how best to achieve digital transformation at scale. We propose that organisation-level perspective on digital transformation of the health sector offers limited understanding of the phenomenon and hence partial understanding of how to deliver successful transformation. We suggest that to understand the complex nature of digital transformation, new approaches that consider different levels of analysis are needed. In doing so, we show how inter-organisational knowledge collaborations are a key feature of recent initiatives to promote concerted change across multiple organizations by establishing a knowledge ecosystem.

Meet the Editors Event

Joint Event: UKAIS is joined by the Digital Organisation and Society (DOS) research centre, Royal Holloway, University of London

Time: 09:30-11:00, 25 October 2022
Livestreaming link: The event is free. To join UKAIS please visit this page.

Agenda

Welcome & Introduction: Dr Philip Wu, Royal Holloway

Talk 1: Research in Information Systems: An Editor’s Perspective
Professor Robert Davison, Editor in Chief of the Information Systems Journal

Abstract

In this talk, I will present the call for papers for the ISJ special issue: “The new wave of hybrid work: An opportunity to revise assumptions and build theory”. I will present the background to the special issue and I will discuss what is expected regarding potential submissions to this special issue. The full call for papers can be found here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/pb-assets/assets/13652575/SI%20HW%20CFP%20FINAL-1658423908383.pdf

Research paper by Haili Li and Genia Kostka can be downloaded here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4066462

Bio

Robert Davison is a Professor of Information Systems at the City University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on the use and misuse of information systems, especially with respect to problem solving, guanxi formation and knowledge management, in Chinese organisations. He is particularly known for his scholarship in the domain of action research. Within the AIS, Robert chaired the research ethics committee for many years, and is currently convenor of the College of Senior Scholars. Robert chairs the IFIP WG 9.4 (The Implications of Information and Digital Technologies for Development) and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Information Systems Journal and the Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries. As a researcher and as an editor, he seeks to promote both an inclusive and an indigenous perspective to research. Home Page: http://www.is.cityu.edu.hk/staff/isrobert

Talk 2: ISJ Special Issue – The new wave of hybrid work: An opportunity to revise assumptions and build theory (Submission Deadline January 31st 2023)
Dr Efpraxia Zamani, Special Issue Editor, Information Systems Journal

Abstract

In this talk, I will present the call for papers for the ISJ special issue: “The new wave of hybrid work: An opportunity to revise assumptions and build theory”. I will present the background to the special issue and I will discuss what is expected regarding potential submissions to this special issue. The full call for papers can be found here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/pb-assets/assets/13652575/SI%20HW%20CFP%20FINAL-1658423908383.pdf

Bio

Dr Efpraxia Zamani is a Senior Lecturer of information Systems at the University of Sheffield. She has received her doctorate from the Department of Management Science and Technology of the Athens University of Economics and Business (Greece). Her research interests are found at the intersection of organizational and social aspects of Information Systems, with an emphasis on the implications of emerging technologies. Her work has appeared in journals, such as Information Systems Journal, the Journal of Information Technology, Government Information Quarterly, and Technological Forecasting and Social Change. She has been guest editor for special issues in the Information Systems Frontiers and the Information Technology and Development. Currently, she is a member of the Peer Review College of the British Academy of Management journal, Board Member for the UK Academy for Information Systems (UKAIS) and a Senior Editor at Information Technology and People.

Cevdet Bulut Receives Best Conference Paper Award

PhD student Cevdet Bulut, along his co-author and supervisor Dr. Philip Wu of Royal Holloway, University of London were recently awarded the Best Complete Paper Award at the annual conference of the Association for Information Systems, AMCIS 2022, held in Minneapolis, MN, United States on August 10-14, 2022.

They were honoured for their paper titled “IoT Adoption in Agriculture: A Systematic Review”, which provides an extensive review of 1355 publications over the last decade, with an aim to highlight the state-of-the-art of research on IoT in agriculture and investigate its slow adoption. The paper as well as the video presentation are both available in the AIS eLibrary. 

In addition to his paper presentation, Cevdet Bulut also chaired a session titled “GIS for Decision Support” at the second day of the Conference.

The Americas Conference on Information Systems (AMCIS), now in its 28th year, is one of the most prestigious international events for information systems scholars. The 2022 edition welcomed more than 600 attendees to Minneapolis, USA and close to 100 virtual attendees across 38 countries. The conference program included 531 papers submitted within 33 conference tracks.

three person looking at x ray result

Fostering Social Value in Digital Transformation Initiatives

By Niki Panteli

DOS Co-Director & Professor of Digital Business, Royal Holloway University of London School of Business and Management (niki.panteli@rhul.ac.uk)

My contribution centres around the argument that digital transformation can create a better world by taking a broader perspective on the value that could be created though digital initiatives. The study I present here focuses specifically on the use of digital health platforms but the argument can be generalised to other digital transformation initiatives.

Value in new initiatives is not just when something new and novel is created, but rather when these new initiatives are considered worthwhile by others. Despite this conceptualization that is recognized in the literature, value is often thought in terms of economic and financial terms, while other types of values such as social value that refers to generating worthwhile impact on specific social groups and the wider society had only attracted limited attention. For this we carried out a study of a digital health platform and sought to examine what kind of social value if at all can be linked to these initiatives.

The study involved MedicineAfrica, a digital platform that was founded in 2008 by a small group of health professionals in the UK with the aim to provide healthcare education to junior and trainee doctors and medical students in fragile, post war countries and regions such as Somaliland, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. MedicineAfrica is based on the voluntary contributions of professional medics primarily in the UK but also Germany with the only paid staff being an administrator and an IT person. The tutorials are online in real time often taking place on Sunday afternoon and until very recently the interactions between tutors and tutees have been text based only. At the time of the study, MedicineAfrica had expanded the number of programmes, courses and countries that it covered, had around 100 volunteers and more than 1000 users/tutees who were benefiting from the educational support of the platform. Therefore, we can confidently say that this represented a successful digital initiative.

In our study, we interviewed a number of people involved with the platform including the founder, managers, volunteers and tutees. We also carried out observation of online tutorials and interactions and had access to a series of documents that gave us further insight on the platform.

An intriguing early finding from the study was about the reasons that made the volunteer doctors not just to join but also to stay with the platform and contribute to its success and growth. The infographic presented here shows a trajectory of the volunteers’ commitment growing over time. Initial reasons and motives for joining included an opportunity to practise new skills and adding these on their CV, making good use of their free time, and giving something back to their home countries especially among immigrant and refugees doctors based in the UK. Over time, the motives changed and the commitment has grown. The tutors talked about the opportunity given to them to learn from their tutees as well as a sense of fulfilment when they spend time on the platform. As a result, they showed commitment to the platform and what the platform stood for; they developed a sense of community and a willingness to undertake additional roles and lead new initiatives on the platform.

Further analysis pointed to evidence of value created for the wider good and different social groups. Different types of social value emerged from the findings.

Cognitive value concerns the transfer of medical knowledge in order to improve clinical practice, to improve patients treatment and healthcare overall.

Professional value is linked to the opportunity provided by the digital platform for the continuous education and development of the professional medics themselves as well as opportunity for networking among the medics themselves.

Epistemic value develops by gaining new knowledge that contribute to publications, and advancing the medical field in general and beyond the specific countries involved.

What the study has shown is that she success of a platform such as MedicineAfrica depends on the connectivity potentials of technology to bring people together regardless of their location, to enable them to work as a collective and develop that important sense of community, and also on the growing commitment of their users especially the volunteers. Together these contribute towards the social value creation and the different types of social value that we have seen in the study.

The blog draws from my contribution to the PDW  ‘Is Digital Transformation Creating a Better World – An International collaboration between academics and managers’, at the 82nd Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management 2022 (August 4-10, 2022, Seattle)’. The full study upon which this presentation is based was published in Information Systems Journal with Petros Chamakiotis and Dimitra Petrakaki in 2021.

Full Reference:

Chamakiotis, P., Petrakaki, D., & Panteli, N. (2021). Social value creation through digital activism in an online health community. Information Systems Journal31(1), 94-119.

woman applying facial mask clay with a brush in front of mirror

It’s all part of the customer journey: The impact of augmented reality, chatbots, and social media on the body image and self-esteem of Generation Z female consumers

By Nisreen Ameen

In a recently published study (Ameen, Cheah and Kumar, 2022) in Psychology and Marketing, we investigate how experiences of using augmented reality, artificial intelligence-enabled chatbots, and social media when interacting with beauty brands affect body image, self-esteem, and purchase behaviour among female consumers in Generation Z. Through three studies, we propose and test a model drawing on social comparison theory. In Study 1, a survey was completed by Generation Z women (n = 1,118). In Study 2 and Study 3, two laboratory experiments were conducted with Generation Z women in Malaysia (n = 250 and n = 200). We show that (1) Generation Z women’s perceived augmentation positively affects their body image, self-esteem, and actual purchase behaviour; (2) although trust in social media celebrities positively affects Generation Z women’s body image and self-esteem, the addictive use of social media does not have significant effects; (3) the chatbot support type (assistant vs friend) has a significant impact on these women’s experience; and (4) brand attachment, reputation, and awareness do not have significant effects. This article provides important implications for theory and practice on the behaviour of Generation Z females when interacting with various technologies.

Reference: Ameen, N., Cheah, J., and Kumar, S. (2022). It’s all part of the customer journey: The impact of augmented reality, chatbots, and social media on the body image and self-esteem of Generation Z female consumers. Psychology and Marketing, https://doi.org/10.1002/mar.21715

Celebrating DOS impact 2022: Fostering and showcasing our impactful research, a pathway for academia and industry research collaboration 

The event will include talks from distinguished academic and industry speakers and a panel discussion with industry leaders. In addition, DOS members who have been working on developing their impactful research and REF impact cases will be presenting their work and sharing their fascinating journey with us.

The event is an opportunity to celebrate DOS members’ impactful research and to explore new opportunities for academic-industry collaborations on challenge-led research and future impactful research.

This will be a two-day event taking place on the 28th and 29th June 2022.

Day one: virtual (via Teams): 1:30pm-4pm

Day two-11am-4pm: on campus, venue: Moore Auditorium Royal Holloway, Egham (and Livestreaming via MS Teams)

Please see the event poster below for full details.

The growth of rental proptech: hybridisation and data risk

By Thomas Wainwright

What’s the issue?

UK homeownership rates peaked in 2003 at 70.9%, before falling to 63.9% in 20181. A combination of precarious work, stagnant pay and increasing property prices have seen more households find themselves within the private rental sector (PRS). In contrast to other countries, the UK’s rental market is fragmented, consisting of many small scale landlords and a smaller, but increasing proportion of institutional landlords. For example, MHCLG’s last private landlord survey in 2018 revealed that 45% of private landlords in England own just one property, with 38% owning between 2-4 properties2. While the PRS remains an important part of UK accommodation provision, it has faced criticism, focussing on ‘rogue’ landlords, unprofessional management and high costs, partly resulting in the Tenant Fees Act (2019), which banned tenant fees3 and inadvertently boosted demand for rental proptech – to which we will return later. Further calls have been made for mandatory landlord registration to combat issues concerning low quality accommodation4 and while demand for PRS accommodation continues, so will calls for change. One set of actors responding to these calls are the entrepreneurs behind rental proptech platforms who are seeking to disrupt and re-shape the PRS for renters, landlords and letting agents.

What’s going on?

Property technology, or proptech, refers broadly to a diverse range of new entrepreneurial start-ups that focus on the increased use of data, interconnectivity, automation, and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms and blockchain, to solve a variety of issues related to property management. As a sub-sector, rental proptech focusses exclusively on – unsurprisingly – the rental sector.

Rental proptech has grown rapidly since the 2008 GFC. The start-ups are diverse, but generally seek to digitally mediate the relationship between landlords, tenants, letting agents and other suppliers, capturing fees and access to new sources of data for marketing, analysis, and to calculate risk. Rental proptech seeks to make the market easier to navigate for tenants. For example, making it easier to remotely book and undertake viewings, or to manage the check-in and out of property through apps, rather than a series of paper forms. Some platforms provide added transparency too, seeking to bar ‘rogue’ landlords and to reward outstanding landlords with greater market visibility and ratings. Landlords are able to access a broader market of renters through online-only letting agents, for example, cutting costs and enabling them to self-service administrative work through automated technology. For letting agents, the technology has also removed much of the administrative back office work. For some, this has been a lifesaver, following the Tenant Fees Act and the loss of application fees, as it enabled high-street agents to adopt rental proptech and to automate their processes, cutting costs.

The UK’s proptech market is arguably world-leading, given the scale of its creativity and innovation, with access to venture capital funds providing considerable potential for growth. In mediating relationships between letting agents and tenants, for example, rental proptech platforms have the opportunity to charge fees and profit from both types of client in this multi-sided market, while cross-selling other products and earning commissions. While tenancy durations vary across different markets within the UK, estimates suggest households stay at a property on average between 18 months5 and 4.1 years6. Towards the shorter end of tenancies, this mobility or churn creates more regular revenue earning opportunities, when compared to property sales, for example.

Given the size of the PRS and its fragmentation, there are opportunities to structure and organise the market through these platforms. In recognising the potential of rental proptech, considerable flows of investment are moving into the sector fuelling its growth, with specialist investment from Pi Labs, Round Hill Ventures and A/O Proptech, for example, with many deals detailed on Unissu.

Digital disruption in the PRS

Rental proptech start-ups are diverse. For example, they include apps that seek to compete with and directly challenge high-street letting agents (Howsy), digital management for letting agents (AskPorter), provide regulatory and compliance support for landlords (Kamma), tenant bill splitting (The Bunch), digital referencing and passporting (Goodlord) and managing the departure of tenants and return of their deposits (The Depositary).

In curating multi-sided markets, rental proptech promises solutions to all parties. Lower costs for landlords, which can mitigate pressures from tax changes regarding SDLT and mortgage interest tax relief. Rental proptech has enabled letting agents to reduce their administrative workload, enabling them to focus their efforts and time on negotiating tenancies and finding new business. For small and medium-sized agencies who simply do not have the capacity to develop their own in-house tech solutions, refocussing their business and outsourcing routine time-consuming tasks provides a considerable benefit.

Renters are able to benefit from a series of improvements, focussed mainly on convenience, For example, through automated check-in and out processes on their phone including deposit reclaim, setting-up and splitting utility bills, and reassurance on some platforms that landlords have been more thoroughly vetted. While rental proptech has not made renting directly cheaper for tenants, following the Tenant Fee Act, in using proptech to reduce costs, this has, in some cases, mitigated the need for agents to increase management fees for landlords, which in turn would be passed into tenants in the form of higher rents.

Sector maturity, hybridisation and consolidation

Rental proptech businesses initially could be seen as pure disruptors to the PRS, seeking to act as direct competitors to high-street estate agents. However, as highlighted above, they are increasingly partnering with established high-street agents, seeing the latter become hybridised – not proptech agencies, but increasingly heavier uses of data-driven tech. Routine and unprofitable functions are being unbundled from agency business models, replaced with rental proptech as it enters the mainstream.

The market is also beginning to consolidate. While rental proptech began with businesses focussing on one problem or difficulty in the PRS, as identified or experienced by the venture teams, they have begun to diversify their product offering. First, to develop additional revenues, for example, through AI driven tenant management or digital referencing, but also as the rental proptech sector focusses on convenience and ease of use. Using several different products from several different firms each with a particular focus is not convenient to clients. As such, rental proptech start-up product portfolios have begun to increasingly overlap, leading to greater competition.

This has seen the development of mergers and acquisitions in the sector. For example, Goodlord acquired Vouch in 2020 to gain tenant referencing capabilities and Acasa in 2021 to gain its tenant bill splitting applications7. Partnerships will no doubt become more important, but the result in the foreseeable future may well be a smaller number of larger and more comprehensive rental proptech firms seeking to cover all parts of the rental value chain. As they provide more comprehensive solutions to high-street agents, the latter may be hollowed out further to focus exclusively on relationship management as hybridisation becomes the norm. While Rightmove and Zoopla may be the property search engines of the sector, new competitors may well come to dominate the market, but in servicing a digital PRS and facilitating the moves of renters.

Emerging digital risks

Rental proptech is underpinned by the novel use of new technologies. However, this raises a series of new risks and issues that could impact on businesses, tenants and the wider market. These risks should be considered, and where necessary, mitigated. As start-ups expand for survival, they focus on client acquisition and revenue growth and it is unsurprising that data risks are not fully considered. From the research, some key risks are apparent – their mitigations are examined in more detail in the accompanying ‘think piece’ [here].

Rental proptech is drawing on ever more detailed personal data through APIs, particularly through open banking. Some of the ways in which this data could be used poses ethical questions, particularly if it could lead to discrimination against particular groups of renters, even if this is unintentional. Not only does this pose ethical risks against tenants, but also reputational and revenue risks that can affect specific businesses, and the broader sector. Just because data is available for use, does not necessarily mean it should be used without thorough justification and an assessment of its potential impacts.

This can also extend to data that renters may self-input. Using apps, tenants can be encouraged to provide more data than perhaps they would provide on paper forms, as the processes is much easier. However, tenants may not fully understand how the data will be used, and may not be comfortable with its function if they knew. More transparency is needed over why data is required, as while consent may be given, it may not necessarily be fully informed.

There are also emerging issues of data equity. For example, some types of data sources may be used in algorithms, which is not available for all renters. For instance, some local authorities provide data on noise complaints in tenant referencing, but not all. This creates a data asymmetry in that some tenants, using a nation-wide rental proptech platform, may be penalised, while others are not, based on the availability/absence of data, rather than actual activity.

Moving from data and turning to the analytical technologies, AI is known for replicating racism, sexism and ableism, based on biases within the data from which they learn8. While this reflects discrimination and bias within society, decisions made using flawed AI can reinforce, replicate and expand discrimination. Similarly, the design of algorithms can encode and replicate unintended results that reinforce discrimination. This creates substantial ethical issues that translate into business risk. While the discrimination may be unintentional, flawed technology can be problematic if left unchecked.

Finally, rental proptech platforms often appear to focus on a particular target market, often of young, urban, professional and mobile renters. While this issue is not technological in itself, products are designed around the needs of these particular renters, which may exclude other types of renter, or may accommodate their needs less effectively. As rental proptech continues to expand and be adopted by more high-street agents, it may be at the detriment of different renter demographics. As such, further work needs to be undertaken to understand how rental proptech affects, is used and adopted by different renter types.

What next – new opportunities?

So far, rental proptech start-ups are focussing on working with smaller landlords and letting agents within the UK’s PRS ecosystem. It’s likely that this trend will continue, with the technology becoming more mainstream amongst high-street agents. Potential opportunities may emerge through coordinated M&A activity to create more full-service rental proptech groups. This could be driven by venture capital funding, or by larger national agencies seeking to develop their own tech platforms and move further into the digital space.

Rental proptech activity is currently limited in the institutional build-to-rent (BTR) sector. However, the BTR arms of pension funds and vertically integrated developers are growing. In addition to housing associations, these landlords could prove to be a new market. The operations of institutional investors are driven by interest around yield. To date, there appears to have been limited interest in rental proptech by institutional BTR sector as is not seen as being able to add sufficient value to the rental experience, or in cutting operational costs, to increase yields. It may be that rental proptech is introduced to these landlords through managing agents and facilities managers, rather than by the landlords themselves.

In the US, proptech has been used to streamline the valuation, surveying, acquisition and management of single family home rentals, to be bundled directly into private equity-backed investment portfolios. Proptech is used to manage asset maintenance, but to also outsource management work from agents and landlords onto tenants using technology, to reduce costs further. While these models and practices have not yet emerged in the UK, existing rental proptech technologies may be deployed for new uses.

As highlighted earlier, while the propositions of rental proptech have the potential to disrupt and enhance the PRS, driving convenience, efficiency and profitability, risks surrounding the use of data at the centre of these technologies remain. These risks need to be considered carefully by the sector and some suggestions and mitigations are outlined in the associated think piece.

Further information

Methodology: The data collected to underpin this research project consisted of expert interviews with 30 prominent actors within the UK’s rental proptech and real estate sector. This was supported through secondary resources and publically available materials.

Resources: RED think piece – What could a Tenant Data Charter look like in the rental proptech sector?

Funding: British Academy – Tackling the UK’s International Challenges

Acknowledgements: Comments from reviewers are much appreciated in clarifying and augmenting the key points raised in earlier drafts

Dr Thomas Wainwright is Reader in Strategy and Entrepreneurship. Tom completed his first degree at the University of Leicester and holds an MSc from the University of Nottingham. He completed his ESRC funded PhD in 2009 (University of Nottingham) where he investigated the development of new strategies and innovations in the financial services sector. Tom then worked at the University of Nottingham on projects that examined wholesale-retail bank linkages and wealth management. In 2010, he began a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Small Business Research Centre at Kingston University, where he worked on consultancy projects for Barclays Bank and other stakeholders, such as Eurofound. Tom joined the University of Southampton in 2012 and became Senior Lecturer in 2014, before becoming Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Innovation and Enterprise.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.brookings.edu/essay/uk-rental-housing-markets/

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/775002/EPLS_main_report.pdf

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/tenant-fees-act

[4] https://www.landlordtoday.co.uk/breaking-news/2020/10/mandatory-landlord-register-is-latest-goal-for-generation-rent-activists

[5] https://www.estateagenttoday.co.uk/estate-and-letting-agent-discussions/2016/5/how-long-does-the-average-tenancy-last

[6] https://www.lettingagenttoday.co.uk/breaking-news/2019/1/tenants-stay-an-average-4-1-years-says-governments-own-figures

[7] https://www.altfi.com/article/8407_rising-proptech-star-goodlord-makes-second-acquisition-with-acasa

[8] https://www.brookings.edu/research/detecting-and-mitigating-bias-in-natural-language-processing/#:~:text=Unsupervised%20artificial%20intelligence%20(AI)%20models,racism%2C%20sexism%2C%20and%20ableism.&text=Billions%20of%20people%20using%20the,exposed%20to%20biased%20word%20embeddings

China’s Social Credit Systems: Myth, Reality, and Discourse

There is a great deal of controversy and myth surrounding the infamous social credit system (SCS) in China. Commentators in the West often portray the SCS as an omnipresent surveillance system imposed by the Chinese government on its citizens, feeding on their personal data for the purpose of authoritarian control. This Orwellian image of the SCS may reflect the zeitgeist of the age of surveillance capitalism, but how close is it to reality? At this research seminar organised by the Digital Organisation and Society (DOS) Research Centre at Royal Holloway, two prominent scholars of the SCS – Prof. Genia Kostka (Freie Universität Berlin) and Dr. Chenchen Zhang (Queen’s University Belfast) – will each present their research on the SCS to provide a more nuanced picture of the reality.

Time: 11-12:30pm, Tuesday 24th May
Livestreaming link: Please contact DOSdirectors@rhul.ac.uk if you want to join this event.

Agenda

Welcome & Introduction: Dr Philip Wu, Royal Holloway

Talk 1 – Accepting but Not Engaging with It: Digital Participation in Local Government-Run Social Credit Systems in China
Prof Genia Kostka, Freie Universität Berlin

Abstract

China’s central and municipal governments have consistently facilitated the development of social credit systems (SCSs) over the past decade. While research has highlighted the Chinese public’s high approval of and support for SCSs, their engagement with these digital projects has not been fully explored. This talk examines Chinese citizens’ digital participation in local government-run SCSs. Based on 64 semi-structured interviews, our most recent research findings suggests that, despite perceiving SCSs as accepting and positive, most interviewees do not actively engage with local government-run SCSs. Multiple factors can explain the gap between high acceptance and low participation, including a lack of awareness regarding local SCSs, a perception that registering and maintaining a decent credit score requires major effort, various concerns over SCSs (e.g., information privacy and safety, as well as algorithm accuracy and fairness), clarity of rules and guidelines, potential risks, unappealing benefits offered by SCSs, and the voluntariness of participating in local SCSs. Our research adds to the existing literature on digital governance in authoritarian contexts by explaining why Chinese citizens do not necessarily engage with state-promoted digital projects.

Research paper by Haili Li and Genia Kostka can be downloaded here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4066462

Bio

Prof Genia Kostka is a Professor of Chinese Politics at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on digital transformation, environmental politics, and political economy with a regional focus on China. Her most recent research project explores how digital technologies are integrated into local decision-making and governance structures in China (ERC Starting Grant 2020-2025).

Talk 2 – Social credit as a governing technique, as imaginary, and as meme
Dr Chenchen Zhang, Queen’s University Belfast

Abstract

This talk is interested in shifting focus from what China’s social credit system is or does to how it is talked about in academic and public discourse in China and elsewhere. It is concerned with what the discourse, imaginations, and memes of social credit could tell us about the politics of knowledge production and everyday international relations. After briefly introducing the institutional and ideational framework of the (actually existing) social credit system in China, I will review some of the recent controversies regarding the system in Chinese public discourse. This is followed by a consideration of the imaginations and myths of “Chinese social credit” produced by journalists, social theorists, political elites, and ordinary internet users located in the geopolitical space known as “the West”. Instead of “debunking the myth”, I seek to examine the functions of these persistent myths and the employment of social credit as a rhetorical figure in shaping Western images of China and images of technology. Of particular interest to this task is the development of a meme culture of social credit in transnational online communities. While the memeification of social credit exemplifies the networked and participatory nature of global digital culture, it is also conditioned by and reproducing traditional geopolitical boundaries and framings despite new patterns of decentralized global exchange.

Bio

Dr Chenchen Zhang is a lecturer in politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research interests include discourse/identity, governmentality, popular geopolitics, and social media in both European and Chinese contexts. Her work has appeared in journals such as European Journal of International Relations, Citizenship Studies, Geopolitics, and European Journal of Social Theory.