empty seats

In the spring of 2013, friends and former clients at large organizations started noticing a strange phenomena. The oddity occurred when the company switched from Microsoft Office desktop to Office 365 — they found a sizable percentage of their workforce no longer used Office for their work.

Those that stopped no longer found a reason to use it regularly. These organizations were spending money for seat licenses that were not used, not because the seats/people didn’t exist, but because the employees didn’t have a need nor desire to use it. Much of the shift was a move away from using Word, but Excel and PowerPoint have also seen a decrease in users.

A few reasons are behind this shift. But being able to see who is (or isn't) using a service provides a new measurement, and adds to the awareness that things have shifted from the standard, “of course your job uses Microsoft Office.”

So why this change, now?

Working From Different Devices

Some of the shift came with the prevalence of smartphones and lightweight tablets. The biggest of these two was the tablet — it's light, can have a keyboard added, has relatively long battery life, includes a cellular modem, and became the tool of choice for work in the field for many.

Tablets forced a quick change in work habits, as Office wasn’t available until this past year across iOS and Android devices (Office didn’t come out of beta for these devices until very recently). People who needed to capture notes often moved to using markdown or just plain text documents. In working this way, they either would copy and paste text into online tools or just upload text files into a searchable shared directory.

The tools caused little frustration and were efficient at getting the job done. And so they brought these lightweight work models back to their offices. This had a trickle down effect, as they taught their colleagues about their workflows and newfound efficiency.

Fitting Collaboration and Cooperative Needs

Another shift in work environments happened in the mid to late 2000s, with the rise of social platforms and shared writing/collaboration environments. Services like Google Docs, where many people can work concurrently and quickly on one document, changed how people worked starting in the mid–2000s. People would start drafts with others in these shared work environments, then continue to iterate and hone the same draft together. These tools grew into multiple offerings with different strengths, depending on customer needs for versioning and change control, visual interface differences, and specific needs for groups and teams.

These co-writing and editing environments often coincided with the upswing in social platforms use by teams, groups, and communities within departments or across organizations. Workers would share ideas from the co-writing environments on the social platforms for further feedback and insight from colleagues. People could have access to edit and change the documents in progress, as well as have discussions around the document. A diversity of cooperation and sharing models surfaced and, with them, a variety of tools and groups to support them.

The work patterns that people became accustomed to and the diversity of options available made a shift to Office 365 less enticing for individuals as it didn’t embrace this diversity. Many who tried shifting to Office 365 complained that it felt limited and didn’t allow them to work collaboratively in the way they had become accustomed.

With the latest version of Office 365 out, many wanted to see if it would meet their collaborative needs as other services had. It still didn’t fit the diverse needs of many, and so it failed to bring them back.

Where Work Happens Shifted

Another driver in this shift is where work happens. Not only did it shift from Office documents on desktops to mobile and tablet devices, but also to browser-based applications and services. People stopped sharing notes, understandings, observations and explanations in documents attached to emails and turned to the continuous flow of streams, team/project pages with regular updates, and services that allowed for finding, capturing, connecting and collaborating in real-time.

Text documents shifted in this manner, as did the information usually found in Excel. Online data capture and annotation with browser and cloud based services with powerful analytics and data visualization capabilities replaced Excel for many. Numbers, data and annotations have been captured, analyzed, interconnected, with larger computational power behind them than what an individual’s device can offer. This decade long shift resulted in a drop in the number of people touching or needing to use Excel.

PowerPoint has also seen a drop in the last 10 years as ideas and expectations about what makes a good presentation change. As more people started creating presentations, they shifted from having a “PowerPoint jockey” travel with them, to being able to produce quality targeted presentations easily by themselves in Keynote.

At the same time organizations started packaging and standardizing presentations. Commonly used sales presentations were slimmed down and transitioned into pick-list pages that could be customized for customers in PDFs or online presentations — none of which required PowerPoint. This ensured quality remained high, but also pushed sales to demonstrate the product in conversation.

Who used Office applications also changed. Organizations realized the lost time from application introduced errors (e.g. documents blowing up from editing text in or around paragraph breaks or in bulleted lists) or lack of training, and pushed the use of Word and other Office applications out of the hands of everybody and into a limited set of “trained” hands. 

The phrase, “put this in Word as the last step” is common in large organizations. I’ve worked with organizations that have official templates for Word and PowerPoint, but handed over with guidance to “ignore them if needed.” These organizations give guidance to focus on the content, as they employ interns and admins who will format content into the templates.

User and Long Term Lock-In

Of all the factors that cause pain and a shift away from Office 365, the biggest has been the long lock-in cycle for pricing for the enterprise. Organizations experiencing the 10 to 40 percent drop in use are hardest hit by the fact that they still pay for those seats. They are paying for those seats not only today, but the next one, two or three years due to lock-in contracts. They know their employees will not be coming back to Office. Had they known these changes beforehand, they never would have signed the long term agreements.

"You only pay for seats used" payment models have surfaced in the last year, from Slack and other smaller enterprise digital tool and services vendors, which has exacerbated the pain around the many Office 365 unused seats. When will Office start to follow this model? 

Title imageCreative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Hernan Piñera