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

Head of Microsoft’s Estonian development center Tanel Erm talks about the unit’s work in an interview to Postimees.

PHOTO: Madis Veltman

Many technology buffs are likely unaware that additional widgets for the Microsoft Teams platform are developed in Tallinn’s Mustamäe district. Head of Microsoft’s Estonian development center Tanel Erm talks about the unit’s work in an interview to Postimees.

What is Microsoft’s Estonian development center working on today and how?

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

Our work is tied to the fact we used to be Skype’s development center (the center was renamed last year – ed.). However, looking back ten years to when Microsoft was concentrating on Skype, technology has come along since then and our focus has changed.

Our work aims to make video meetings and conferences smoother. We are creating cool widgets to make video streams more exciting. We are making sure paid virtual calls are of excellent quality. We are looking into cloud computing and AI capabilities.

We are largely tied to the Offic365 and Microsoft Teams ecosystems.

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

User activity grew several times for Teams. We went from having a few dozen million users to having 200 million. Teams user figures also grew severalfold in Estonia and I know local media companies who switches to our platform. Unfortunately, I have no specific data for Estonia. I can say that growth has not stopped after the emergency situation did.

People whose job mainly requires them to press keys were sent to work from home virtually overnight in Estonia and the rest of the world. Did things go smoothly for you?

Developing these remote working tools is our job. That is why it would be hard for me to imagine a company in a better position than we were. We should be able to adjust to such crises quickly. We were already working from all over the world and without having to go to the office, using Microsoft Teams on a daily basis. While we needed to set up new physical servers as Teams user figures exploded – the ordinary person did not feel that pressure. But we managed!

We also managed to take care of logistical problems, even though it initially turned out 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 melted into one another. Microsoft has met employees halfway when it comes to working from the home office by allowing them to take equipment home and compensating online purchases.

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

(Laughs for a long time.) The Xbox followed a 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 have to do with people’s mental health. What is going on in our heads. What will become of people’s mental well-being working in an environment that is not meant for that. Things were 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 lonely 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 alone time.

Widespread use of (virtual) psychologists also does not seem sensible as it is rather addressing 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 an employee would not have to switch between different roles or contexts several times a day. That is what will take a toll on mental health first.

It is especially important for us as Microsoft has recommended its employees stay home until early October. We are testing various models of working from the office part-time.

We are in the middle of an office-going study among our staff. I can already say that people have very different preferences. There are employees who say and can prove they are more effective working from home. And there are those who say it is very lonely and impossible to work from home. The hybrid model will become more common. We also had that opportunity before the coronavirus crisis, while people preferred to come in out of habit. More people prefer the home office now. Yet, I believe only very few companies can afford to do away with offices completely. Mainly because of mental health reasons.

Twitter has told its staff to stay 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 in that it is naive to think that because we could make home office work for a few months, we can now stay there indefinitely. It is an incredibly naive point of view and one that does not take into account people’s mental health and the size of their family. Many will eventually lose their minds.

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. And that help spontaneous social contacts that often happen automatically around the office. However, I have not seen any good and properly thought-out solutions yet. Different teams have come up with rituals to help compensate for this lack of random contact, but these are rather temporary solutions.

We are working to make Teams integrate even more smoothly with different programs and widgets. 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?

Had we a good interface between the computer and a human brain, most of our problems would be solved. 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 the 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 either remained the same or disappeared. Microsoft has done relatively better, but we are also suffering as we sell our cloud technology to other companies.

The fact is that there are more developers looking for work today than there were three or four months ago. The demand for their work is still there as IT sector layoffs were minimal. Many companies are still hiring, Microsoft included. We have 12 vacancies today, two for practical training and ten for full-time work. Whereas we do not know how many more openings we will have this year.

Demand has grown for local developers because borders are closed. While we used to recruit people from foreign countries, this opportunity will not be available for some time now. Then again, things are made simpler for us by the fact Estonian developers have also been laid off elsewhere.

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 different parts of the world. Most of the Earth’s internet traffic moves through these centers. Their capacity is fixed. During the quarantine, we saw that this capacity was insufficient at times. But we can always reroute traffic – for example, by moving traffic between the USA and Europe through Asia, which is what we did for a time. It is not an optimal solution, but it worked as a temporary one. I believe this crisis has rendered us more creative and highlighted the need for more powerful data centers.

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 new things quickly. If we have a language spoken by just one million people… It is far more difficult to develop an 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 companies betting on the local market. From the world of consumer electronics: there are smart TVs that have excellent Estonian user interfaces and there are those the Estonian menus of which are so poor that one quickly switches back to the default. The same goes for smart applications.

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

I would point out another aspect. Walking around the city or seeing in the shop something that’s made in Estonia but only has English descriptions available, I wonder… The magnitudes of the tech world already do not favor small languages. Why are we doing ours a disservice also in other areas? That said, I also wonder whether small languages stand a chance in the globalized world in 200 years’ time. I believe Botswana has better chances than Latvia here.