SA’s cellular stores open doors amid level four lockdown

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South African mobile operators are adjusting to the “new normal” way of working following the level four COVID-19 lockdown regulations which kicked in on 1 May.

In a bid to gradually kick-start the economy, SA embarked on a staged reopening of the economy.

Since the national lockdown started, telecommunication service providers have been deemed essential services, meaning they could continue operating.

However, it was not business as usual, as the mobile operators were forced to close their shops to minimise the spreading of the coronavirus.

It was also not business as usual during level five lockdown, as the mobile network operators had to ask most of their office-based workforce to work remotely.

The telcos have also reported a massive surge in data traffic across their networks as more South Africans have taken to working and learning from home with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to take a toll.

As of Wednesday, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in SA was 7 808 with 153 deaths and 3 153 recoveries, according to the Department of Health.

The introduction of level four has brought some relief to the telcos, with the sale of personal ICT equipment, including computers, mobile telephones and other home office equipment now being permitted.

Extreme precautions

Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN SA, says the operator has resumed some of its activities “subject to extreme precautions to limit community transmission and outbreaks”.

She notes all MTN-owned stores resumed operations from 1 May.

According to O’Sullivan, the operation of these stores is being done in accordance with specific conditions set up by the National Coronavirus Command Council and the Department of Health.

“To ensure our employees are protected, MTN has put various proactive measures in place and has formulated a workplace plan to prevent the spread of infection,” she says.

“The strict hygiene protocols that were already in our stores before lockdown will remain and have been supplemented with some additional actions, including the clearing of non-essential items, such as phones on display, to limit the number of items than can be touched in the store.”

She notes all employees have been provided with hand sanitisers, reusable masks and face screens, adding that employees have their temperatures monitored throughout the day using infrared thermometers, and vulnerable staff (pregnant, chronic conditions) remain working from home.

“Anecdotally, from various departmental ‘town hall’ meetings that have been held with employees, many of our people have responded very well to the working from home arrangements,” says O’Sullivan.

“This week, we have seen a few frustrations related to unscheduled power outages but many supervisors and managers are reporting higher levels of efficiency. We are finding people are getting online much earlier in the day, as people are not constrained by their usual morning commute, along with getting children to school on time.

“We have also had surprisingly good feedback that people are connecting even more than in the office, through the standard use of video-conferencing.”

She adds the ease of work has seen some people working excessively long hours, which MTN has had to guard against, as it has been a very busy time for MTN as an essential service provider.

Work-from-home success

At Vodacom, spokesperson Byron Kennedy says the reality is that the operator has never stopped working.

“Our work-from-home programme has proven to be a success and contributed to the fact that business operations remained functional.”

According to Kennedy, in instances where tasks or functions cannot be effected from home, Vodacom has put measures in place to ensure it adapts quickly to continue meeting shifting customer needs.

Vodacom services many of its customers using various independent retail outlets, most of which have opened their doors in line with level four requirements, he notes.

“The vast majority of employees continue to work from home. Vodacom will take a phased approach – guided by government directives – when it comes to employees returning to the workplace over the next few months, which we believe will help to minimise the risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19.”

This decision applies to all permanent employees and contractors, including on-site suppliers, says Kennedy. “We will continue to build on the success of our work-from-home programme, which means for many employees, working from home will become the new normal.”

Over the next two weeks, Vodacom’s office buildings will be prepared for re-opening. “Our facilities teams are hard at work preparing for this, and will perform many functions, including the deep cleaning of each building; restarting of ventilation that was shut down during the lockdown; demarcating areas to ensure social distancing; and other measures to ensure all our offices are safe for occupation.”

Level four occupancy regulations

Meanwhile, Telkom has seen a 30% to 40% surge in data traffic from both its mobile and fixed-line customers.

The company says since the lockdown, work from home and entertainment have contributed to the increase in the volumes, as has Telkom’s zero-rating of several Web sites, including university portals, FET colleges, education content Web sites provided by the department, and certain government Web sites.

During lockdown, Telkom was identified as an essential service; therefore, most technicians continued work as normal in compliance with the regulations guiding the lockdown, it notes.

“Our office-based staff worked from home and continue to do so in level four, while the company prepares the offices to comply with level four occupancy regulations which includes the appropriate level of social distancing, PPE, temperature scanning and cleaning requirements.”

Telkom Direct stores were closed during level five of the lockdown and the stores reopened on Wednesday, 6 May.

Lastly, Cell C says “it is complying with the one-third phased return to work approach on any given day in all our operations, which governs all work plans.

“The aim is that operations resume work safely and with minimal risk to the health of employees, or the health of members of the public. Priority has been given to those employees who have not been able to work during the lockdown.”

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