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As South Africans return to the office after months of working from home, companies are making innovative plans to accommodate the new normal.

South Africa went into a nationwide lockdown on 27 March to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

South African IT giant Dimension Data has launched an online booking portal that allows employees to select and book the days they want to come into the office. This is to make sure that numbers are controlled in the workplace, to maintain strict physical distancing and hygiene protocols.

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READ | SA companies are seeing surprising benefits to remote work - and now plan for a 'blended' model

The Johannesburg-based company, which was acquired by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT) in 2010, sends employees a QR code granting them access to their selected office location – or a building within that location – subject to space availability and the passing of a daily health check.

The system is part of Dimension Data’s new blended working model that gives employees the choice to work remotely for two days a week, provided they are able to access an office hub at short notice should the need arise.

READ | It’s official: Stay out of office till October, and SARS will let you claim home office costs

“As the legislation changed and more people started to return to the office we needed a frictionless way for employees to book a seat at a location for a day or longer ensuring that each office location didn't exceed the safe social distancing limits,” says Michaela Voller, Chief HR Executive at Dimension Data. “This system allows us to track and manage the amount of people coming back to ensure safe social distancing protocols are maintained and potential risks are managed.”

Dimension Data’s online health risk assessment and booking portal is based on Azure Software as a Service (SaaS). The solutions can dynamically generate QR codes that can be scanned by all security and receptionists at each office location using a tablet. The code then displays a person’s health status and location access approval, which can also be used for post-incident tracking and tracing should the need arise. 

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“The goal was to have a solution that would offer contactless employee and visitor access and that would track whether people accessing company locations had not only completed the correct PPE training, but were also responsible and safe in terms of declaring co-morbidities and completing daily health checks, prior to arriving at one the company’s locations,” says Voller.

Dimension Data developed the first component of the system in one day and then spent a couple more ensuring that it incorporated all the necessary compliance features. A user-ready version of the app was rolled out within eight weeks, including all the mandatory changes as South Africa moved down to lower lockdown levels.

The company also created a white labelled version of the portal for ContinuitySA, a leading provider of business continuity management services, which it uses to manage customers at its disaster recovery co-location sites.

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Other tech companies have introduced similar interventions.

For example, Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has rolled out an online portal called Healthy at Work which allows workers to log their daily symptoms and schedule a test if necessary. 

The platform then conducts symptom tracking, data analytics and the latest guidance from health to keep employees informed and aware of their health at all times to prevent community spread.

IBM requires that workers log their temperatures and answer a series of questions about any symptoms before they come into work. Workers also have to say which rooms and labs they plan on using, and during which times – so that cleaning staff know when to clean certain areas of the building throughout the day.

READ | Take a look inside IBM's offices that have been completely reimagined since the pandemic's start

South African companies will increasingly adopt hybrid working models that give employees greater flexibility to work remotely in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Research by NTT DATA, a division of the NTT Group that owns Dimension Data, shows that 56% of office employees expect to have some degree of working-from-home optionality when offices reopen.

“We are creating collaborative spaces, break away areas and areas of work that will allow this flexibility,” says Voller. “This means that people don’t need to come into the office and sit at a designated desk in rows as it used to be but rather, they should be able to choose, based on their work day, how they work. We can better optimise our workspaces using fewer desks and provide the freedom to collaborate and flexibility for employees to choose to work at the office where it most makes sense.”

Shoprite and RMB are some of the large companies that are looking at longer-term "blended" options of allowing staff to work from home at least part of the time.

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