The COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged lockdown have radically changed the way South African companies operate, how education happens, and how people interact.
Working from home is now the norm for many employees and face-to-face meetings have quickly become a thing of the past.
Education moved online for many students and communicating with family and friends is nearly exclusively done electronically.
At the core of supporting this digital transformation are South Africa’s five mobile operators – Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, Telkom, and Rain.
Mobile operators support the communication needs of millions of South Africans through Internet access, voice calling, and messaging services.
They are also supporting students’ online studies through free access to a wide range of educational websites and free data bundles.
The change in behaviour during the lockdown, free data bundles, and zero-rated access to a wide range of websites have resulted in a spike in traffic on mobile networks.
Vodacom, for example, said it has seen a 40% increase in mobile network traffic and a 250% increase in fixed traffic during the COVID-19 lockdown.
This raises the question of how mobile are coping during the lockdown and what impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on their businesses.
MyBroadband spoke to Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C, and Rain about the impact of COVID-19 on their operations.
Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy said the vast majority of their employees continue to work from home, which is now the company’s default position.
“Our work-from-home programme has proven to be a success and contributed to the fact that business operations have remained functional throughout the duration of the lockdown period,” said Kennedy.
He said Vodacom will take a phased approach – guided by government directives – when it comes to employees returning to the workplace over the next few months.
“We will continue to build on the success of our work-from-home programme as this becomes the new normal.”
The good news is that Vodacom did not have to cut salaries, retrench staff, or let go of any contractors during this period.
Vodacom also has no plans to cut jobs due to the impacts of COVID-19.
“Where certain employees may be unable to carry out their duties as a result of the lockdown – such as staff who are unable to fulfil their functions working from home – we are actively redeploying them into other areas of the business,” Kennedy said.
MTN SA executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan said they started moving their people out of their offices to work from home in the week leading up to lockdown.
“We initiated our business continuity management plans a month prior to lockdown so the planning for the inevitable lockdown was well-underway by the time it happened,” she said.
Not everyone could work from home, though. Through level 5, MTN employees such as technicians, engineers, and operators in its national operations centre had to be on-site.
O’Sullivan said MTN’s work-from-home arrangements have gone extremely well.
“We immediately moved our in-house call centre agents to work from home. We then took it upon ourselves to do the same for our outsourced call centre agents, based in KwaZulu-Natal,” she said.
“We set up more than 350 agents in their homes with laptops and connectivity to take customers calls from their homes.”
O’Sullivan said the MTN philosophy is that post COVID-19, those who can work from home and are happy to work from home, will be encouraged to work remotely, forever.
She highlighted that it is very important that employees are supported and given the adequate “tools of trade” to work remotely.
This starts with equipment like smartphones and laptops, secure communication applications like MS Teams, fuel for connectivity which is plenty of data, and ergonomically friendly set-ups of chairs and desks.
“COVID-19 is a major disruptor for digital acceleration, and we will take a leading position in this new normal,” said O’Sullivan.
The good news is that MTN South Africa is not currently considering any retrenchments despite the economic challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have frozen all new appointments and we have made significant cuts to this year’s CAPEX and OPEX budgets,” she said.
MTN has also made the decision to go ahead in March with salary increases for employees.
The MTN SA leadership team has, however, elected to defer their salary increases for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis and those funds are being channelled into an employee support fund that has been created to assist employees directly affected by this pandemic.
Employees are also able to donate directly to the fund from their salaries in any amount they choose.
Cell C said its return-to-work policy is informed by the regulations and is updated as restrictions requirements evolve.
“We have had some staff that could work from home and continue to do so, and others either unable to work at all or on shortened hours,” Cell C said.
“We are making use of the COVID-19 TERS Relief Funds to cover the shortfalls for those employees to the extent provided by the UIF.”
Cell C paid full salaries for April and May for all employees regardless of whether they were not able to work or worked short time, despite the TERS claim only covering a percentage of the salary bill.
“For May, a combination of TERS and annual leave will be used to offset the value of the advance paid as far as possible,” Cell C said.
In early March, in line with its stated operational efficiencies strategy, Cell C initiated a section 189 consultation process affecting certain positions specifically at a senior manager and executive level.
There are, however, no COVID-19 related retrenchments of staff.
Telkom said that since level 4 of the lockdown, over 90% of its employees continue to work from home.
The remainder – its field technicians and Telkom Direct Stores employees – are back in shops and attending to its customers.
Good news is that Telkom did not have to cut salaries during the lockdown.
“We are still studying the impact of the virus and the lockdown on the business, however at the moment, we have not had to cut any salaries,” Telkom said.
Rain CEO Willem Roos told MyBroadband that virtually all of their staff continues to work from home at this stage.
“We do have some critical functions that required people to come into work – some on a periodic basis only,” Roos said.
“Our staff are fortunate to have good connectivity and technology equipment available to them, and therefore our business continues to function very well in a work-from-home environment.”
The good news is that Rain has not implemented any pay cuts or short time for staff. It has also not retrenched any staff and is not planning to do so.
It has also not “dismissed” any contractors based on the effects of COVID-19. “Rain is, in fact, recruiting more staff to better serve our customers,” Roos said.
“We regard ourselves very fortunate that our prospects are good in spite of the epidemic and resultant economic devastation. We therefore continue working with the ClickFoundation, the Solidarity Fund and Government, in general, to assist where we can,” Roos said.