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The New York City Subway in Manhattan. (Manuel Lardizabal photo)

Work was going really well for Bruce Ansley in early 2020.

As a network administrator for SAIC, an information-technology contractor, the 63-year-old regularly saw co-workers who had become friends, worked out at the gym three days a week and attended engaging space-related programs at the NASA Langley Research Center, where he works.

And, to top it off, his workplace was the very NASA facility where the Apollo 11 astronauts trained for the 1969 moon landing, which inspired his love of space and technology.

Then, like for so many others, in March 2020, his work world changed overnight. Covid-19 began spreading worldwide, and non-essential employees were ordered to work remotely until the pandemic could be controlled.

Ansley suddenly found himself working from home at his kitchen table. Venturing into public even with a mask and social distancing worried him because of the increased risk the virus poses to people with other health conditions. Ansley suffers from high blood pressure, struggles with weight issues and has exercise-induced asthma. Most important, he feared the cardiopulmonary havoc that the coronavirus can wreak.

“It’s just so funny how something so tiny has changed everybody’s life,” said Ansley, who has spent a year actively avoiding other people to protect his health. He eagerly awaits getting vaccinated so that exposure to the Covid-19 virus “would no longer be a life-or-death situation” for him due to his age and health.

Still, he said, “going to my office and sitting in my cubicle is something I miss and want to return to.”

Age-related risk for hospitalization and mortality

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that people aged 50 to 64 are 25 times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid than children aged 5 to 17. People aged 40 to 49 have risk that is 15 times higher, while the rate is 35 times greater for those aged 65 to 74.

Death statistics from the disease are even more alarming: 40- to 49-year-olds face a 130 times higher chance of dying than children, people aged 50 to 64 have a risk that is 400 times greater and those between 65 and 74 face a rate that is 1,110 times higher.

Even though the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines are becoming increasingly available across the country for older workers and people with health risks, at-risk workers like Ansley are concerned about returning to offices even after the pandemic subsides.

It’s a complicated issue, said Marta Turba, vice president of content strategy at WorldatWork, a nonprofit membership organization for human-resource professionals that focuses on how to  attract, engage and retain employees.

“I have heard more return-to-work concerns surface regarding workers who have high-risk medical conditions,” she said. “These may include older workers, but not exclusively. Some believe that a return to the workplace brings an unnecessary risk of contracting Covid. This is especially a concern right now with uncertainty about vaccine effectiveness and before we have reached the stage of herd immunity.”

Mixed feelings about returning to the office

To be sure, many employers want to have their employees return to in-person work as soon as possible for a variety of reasons, Turba added.

“In-person work makes it easier to build/preserve a positive work culture,” she said. “It promotes stronger team collaboration and drives higher engagement overall. Some organizations may have an easier time motivating, measuring and recognizing employee performance in person.”

“And, often overlooked, is the fact that some employees prefer to be in person, at least in a partial capacity. The social connection brought by work is highly valued, sometimes even more than the convenience of working from home,” Turba said.

Most workers expect to be back in the office later this year, but not all are happy about it, surveys show.

A poll conducted by Clever, an online real-estate referral service, found that 62 percent of remote-based employees said they expected to return to on-site work in the second quarter of this year. At the same time, almost 60 percent of those working from home said they would be worried about their health or their family’s health by returning to the office. Only 17 percent reported that they would feel safe.

Communication about vaccine effectiveness is key

To prepare for office reopenings and reassure at-risk workers about in-office safety, companies need to do more than rigorously follow recommendations from the CDC and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, experts say. They also need to inform staff about the importance of getting vaccinated.

Effectively communicating about Covid vaccines and efforts to prevent infections on site will play a big part in allaying workers’ concerns, said Jeff Levin-Scherz MD, the North American co-leader of the health management practice at Virginia-based consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.

“The clinical reality is that both approved vaccines are 100 percent effective against being hospitalized and dying from Covid-19,” added Levin-Scherz, who is also assistant professor at Harvard School of Public Health.

Employers are studying whether to require vaccinations for employees returning to the office.

A Willis Towers Watson survey of employers showed that only 2 percent of companies currently are requiring proof of vaccination before allowing employees to return to the workplace, while 1 percent have implemented it as a condition of employment. Still, 44 percent are considering such policies and 35 percent are planning to implement them, it found.

Extensive office safety measures desired by many workers

It will take more than a vaccine for workers like Ansley to feel more comfortable returning to in-person work. At the top of his list is good ventilation and social distancing.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to the cafeteria or even the gym,” he said.

Ansley is not alone in hoping to see his company take additional safety measures before reopening offices.

According to the Clever research, employees said they would feel safer in the office if employers took the following steps:

  • Requiring everyone to wear a mask (62 percent)
  • Easy access to sanitizing equipment (62 percent)
  • Office deep cleaning each evening (57 percent)
  • Properly distanced desks (56 percent)
  • Equipping office with a sanitizing AC system (52 percent)
  • Temperature/symptom checks each morning (50 percent)
  • Properly distanced meeting spaces (47 percent)
  • Individual office space for each worker (45 percent)
  • Weekly COVID-19 testing (44 percent)
  • Requiring vaccines for all workers (34 percent)

‘A desk with my name on it’

Ansley, who will work in the new Katherine G. Johnson Computing Center at Langley when pandemic restrictions are lifted, likes having an option to work remotely when events, such as the extreme cold this winter or future outbreaks of disease, make it more sensible to work from home.

Still, given the option of returning to a safe office environment or remaining a full-time remote worker, Ansley has a clear preference.

“With the vaccine, I would prefer to go back to work [in the office],” he said. “That would be my personal choice because that’s the type of person I am. I have a nice desk that has my name on it ready for me to move in there.”

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