Sa, 2.12.2023

Tanel Erm: Physical offices will not disappear for mental health reasons

Hendrik Alla
, toimetaja
Head of Microsoft’s Estonian development center Tanel Erm talks about the unit’s work in an interview to Postimees.
Head of Microsoft’s Estonian development center Tanel Erm talks about the unit’s work in an interview to Postimees. Photo: Madis Veltman

Many tech “early birds” are unaware that additional widgets for the Microsoft Teams platform are developed in Tallinn. Microsoft Estonia Development Center CEO Tanel Erm talks about Microsoft’s progress in an interview to Postimees. 

What is Microsoft Development Center Estonia (MDCE) working on today and how?

The short, concise answer would be – developing intelligent communication infrastructure. However, that only makes sense to readers who are familiar with information technology – some may think we are building “smart” cables. That is why I will try to be more specific.

Our work is related to the fact we used to be Skype’s development center (the center was renamed last year – editor’s note). However, if we look back ten years when Microsoft was concentrating on Skype, technology has progressed since then and our focus has naturally changed.

Our work aims to make video meetings and conferences smoother. We are creating cool widgets to enhance video streams, making them more exciting. We are making sure that virtual and phone calls are of excellent quality. We are leveraging cloud computing and AI capabilities.

We are largely tied to the Office365 and Microsoft Teams ecosystems.

What changes have Teams and Skype seen this year in terms of user activity?

User activity skyrocketed for Teams. We saw user growth in tens of millions. Teams usage figures also grew severalfold in Estonia and I personally know many examples, including a local media company who switched to our platform to hold meetings. I don't have specific data for Estonia, but I can say that growth didn't stop when the lockdown ended.

Many office workers were sent to work from home virtually overnight in Estonia and the rest of the world. Did things go smoothly for you?

Developing remote working tools is our job. That is why it would be hard for me to imagine a company in a better position than us. We were able to adapt quickly. We were already working from all over the world and without having to go to the office, using Microsoft Teams daily for meetings and work. 

We did need to scale up our servers as Teams user figures exploded – the ordinary person did not feel the pressure our engineers felt. But we pulled through!

We also managed to take care of logistical problems, even though we initially discovered that some people did not have a proper desk, chair, or monitor at home. I was moving to a new house when the quarantine began – I didn’t even have a stove, sink, or shower at first. My private life and working life blended into one. Microsoft has been supporting employees when it comes to working from home office, by allowing them to take equipment home or reimbursing remote working equipment purchases, for example.

How much of a priority was setting up your Xbox when moving?

(Laughing) The Xbox was installed the next day after the TV arrived.

What are the dangers of working remotely – a trend which is believed to only deepen in the coming years?

The problems are related to people’s mental health. What is going on in our heads? What will become of people’s mental well-being when they work in an environment that is not meant for remote work? Coronavirus lockdown was especially difficult for families with children when schools were closed, with people having to function as employees, parents, cooks, and teachers – all at the same time. And on the other end of the spectrum, we have single people. Is it realistic to expect people to just stay home alone for the duration of the workday? Not everyone is introverted and equally appreciative of the time spent alone.

Widespread use of (virtual) psychologists also does not seem sensible as it addresses consequences. We need to think about how to avoid those consequences in the first place. For me, the most critical question is what to do so that an employee would not have to switch between different roles or contexts several times a day. That takes a toll on mental health first.

It is especially important for us as Microsoft has recommended its employees to work from home for several more months. We are currently testing various models of working from the office part-time.

We have conducted surveys among our staff. People have very different preferences. There are employees who say they are more effective when they're working from home. And there are those who say it is very lonely, and for others it’s impossible to work from home due to lack of ability to focus. The hybrid model will become more common. We also had supported this before the coronavirus crisis, while most people were accustomed to coming into the office. More people prefer the home office now. Yet, I believe only very few companies would be willing to abandon offices permanently, mental health reasons playing also a key role here.

Twitter told its staff to stay at home.

CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, recently warned people against the dangers of working from home during a web conference. And I agree with him. It is naive to think that because we could make home office work for a few months, we can now stay there indefinitely. It would be a naive point of view and one that does not consider people’s mental health and the size of their family. Many will eventually suffer.

With remote working becoming more popular, what kind of new software solutions could help the home office function even better?

The greatest potential lies in tools that help people manage time and focus. There isn’t a tool that makes up for spontaneous social contacts that often happen automatically around the office. Different teams have come up with rituals to compensate for this lack of random contact, but these are temporary solutions.

We want Teams to integrate even more smoothly into the hybrid workplace. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you what Teams will soon be coming out with, but quite a few exciting widgets are nearing completion.

Maybe we will all work from virtual offices in the future where we can enjoy spontaneous meetings and conversations?

If we had a functioning interface between the human brain and computers, these problems would probably cease to exist. Then we would have a perfect virtual reality. But since there is no such solution, nor is it on the horizon today, we need to consider alternatives.

What about demand for software developers? This resource should not be limited by national borders or even the walls of people’s homes.

Firstly, the economy has taken a hit everywhere. Startups and traditional tech firms alike are opting for layoffs, also in Estonia. Turnovers and profits are often either flat or falling. Microsoft has done better, but we sell our products and services to a wide variety of companies, some of whom are not doing as great.

The fact is that there are more developers looking for work today than there were before the COVID crisis. The demand for their work is still there as tech sector layoffs were minimal. Many companies are still hiring, Microsoft included. We have a wide variety of vacancies in Tallinn and Tartu.

Demand has somewhat grown for local developers, as many countries are still struggling to contain the virus and travel is not easy. We used to regularly recruit people from foreign countries, this opportunity might not be as readily available for some time now. The fact that some developers here in Estonia are looking for a new job helps us out a bit.

Netflix and Facebook decided to reduce their video quality in Europe at the start of the crisis, while I have yet to notice any difference. Full HD is available and that’s enough for me. But could the world theoretically “run out of internet” by demand exceeding throughput capacity?

There are massive data centers located in certain key parts of the world. Most of the Earth’s internet traffic moves through these centers. Their capacity is somewhat fixed. During the quarantine in March and April, we saw this really being put to the test. There are also options to reroute traffic – for example, by shifting between America, Europe and Asia, which is what we did at times. Even if the path is temporarily suboptimal, by keeping the service running for our customers, everybody wins. I believe this crisis has rendered us more creative overall and highlighted the need to be flexible with capacity.

Is there any hope of communicating with smart applications in Estonian or do we all need to switch to English?

Modern smart solutions are based on machine learning. What does machine learning need? It needs as much data as possible to be able to learn. We have a language spoken by just one million people… It is far more difficult to develop AI to operate in the Estonian information space than it is to build one based on a language spoken by a billion people or more. These scales do not favor smaller languages.

However, we can see some companies betting more on smaller markets. As an example from the world of consumer electronics, there are some smart TVs manufacturers that have excellent Estonian user interfaces and there are some that are so poor that one quickly switches back to the default. The same goes for phone and computer applications.

It is up to the user to decide how important language is compared to system functionality. If you want a brilliant user experience with new technology, you usually need English.

I would point out another aspect. When I’m walking around the city or visit local shops, I see even products that are made in Estonia, for Estonia with English brand names and descriptions. The tech world and its gravity in English is not helping small languages as is, and for some reason we are inflicting further damage ourselves in other aspects of everyday life. That said, I wonder whether small languages stand any chance in the globalized Western world in 200 years’ time. Perhaps languages in Benin have a better chance of survival than Estonian or Latvian.