Many MGH staff have questions about Office 365 – which includes Word, Outlook and Excel applications – and the Exchange Online email program. Here, Keith Jennings, MGH/MGPO chief information officer, discusses recent questions from staff and plans for the future. This article is part of a series of Hotline articles about all things IS-related.


How are Office 365 and Exchange Online issues affecting us?

Users across the MGH – and all of Partners – have experienced overall poor system performance and responsiveness. The most critical issues identified are:

  • Too many login prompts when opening Outlook.
  • A delay in launching Outlook before mail items become visible.
  • Poor Outlook performance after the application has loaded, including inconsistent data transfer rates when using Office 365.

How are these Office 365 and Outlook issues being identified and fixed?

The Partners IS team has made this a top priority. We have created an interdisciplinary tiger team, and temporarily reassigned Jack Brown, MGH/MGPO IS associate director, to lead this team to focus 100 percent on stabilization and improvement of the Office 365 experience. The tiger team invited Microsoft representatives to Boston to participate in walkthroughs with MGH and Brigham and Women’s clinicians and administrative staff to gather feedback.

The team – alongside Microsoft leadership – identified the most critical issues and technical factors contributing to the performance and usage problem and made recommendations based on their findings on the best ways to make improvements. We already are working to implement many of the Microsoft-recommended changes and have bolstered our support for MGH Office 365 users.

Why do we have to log in so many times?

There are two types of Office 365 prompts for user credentials: Office 365 authentication and Office 365 activation. Activation occurs every time you install Office on a new device or use Office for the first time on a device that already has it. Authentication happens each time you use Office 365 to verify your identify and to allow access to your email in the Exchange Online system.

If you have a dedicated computer in your workspace, you may have only needed to activate Office one time. The authentication, which happens every time you login, is usually performed by our single sign-on tool. You may have to reactivate every 90 days.

On shared computers – those in swing spaces or in the Emergency Department, Inpatient Core, Perioperative and ambulatory exam rooms – the process should have been similar. While you may have to activate Office 365 on every new computer you use – a challenge for clinicians and staff who move between computers and care areas – the activation should have lasted for 90 days until the necessary reactivation process. Unfortunately, the reactivation happened much more frequently. To many users, it seemed like they had to reactivate every time they logged in.

Microsoft currently suggests Office 365 users on shared computers use Microsoft Outlook Web Express, which does not require activation, and loads much faster than the full desktop option. We are currently working with OKTA, our single sign-on solution provider, to see if they can minimize the shared computer reactivation frequency. We have OKTA modifications undergoing testing at Assembly Row, and if successful they will be rolled out across Partners at the earliest opportunity.

What’s all the fuss about license counts and why did some need to be “reclaimed”?

For Office 2007, we had device-based licenses – roughly one for every computer. This was relatively easy to manage and we could license the email accounts and Office products (Word, Excel, etc.) separately.

Office 365 is individual user-based, and Microsoft knows exactly how many users have active licenses. As we prepared to convert from Office 2007 to Office 365, we purchased enough licenses for all Partners employees, roughly 68,000. However, as we began moving users to Office 365, we shot past 68,000 users, creating nearly 88,000 accounts in Office 365. The 20,000 accounts difference, worth $3 million, was caused by two major factors: terminated employees whose accounts had not been purged, and contractors/vendors who had been given partners.org email accounts.

The “reclamation” allowed us to return unused licenses to Microsoft to reduce the license discrepancy and to negotiate a more accurate license count. We are now working with Human Resources, Research, IS and other groups that bring on large numbers of new employees, “persons of interest,” contractors and vendors to more closely look at Office 365 license distribution.

Why is Outlook so slow?

In early 2018, Microsoft worked with Partners IS teams on an assessment of our Office 365 environment. Early opportunities for improvement focused on two areas: the network path between Partners and Microsoft, and the configuration of our email calendars.

In mid-February, changes were made within our network to speed up the transfer of data to and from Microsoft’s cloud. At the same time, our email calendar configuration was updated to store recent data from shared calendars on our devices rather than in the cloud. When Outlook starts, it loads calendar items first before loading inbox items; the shared calendar change has reduced the long load delays.

At Microsoft’s recommendation, a separate calendar change prevented the creation of recurring appointments with no end date. While this was not a performance recommendation, limiting the duration of recurring appointments helps prevent calendar data corruption that can result in Outlook calendar loading issues.

The Partners Office tiger team continues to work with Microsoft to investigate opportunities and test solutions for improving Office 365 performance. Some Office 365 and Outlook slowness may be related to issues with the Office installation on individual devices or the devices themselves. Please contact the Service Desk if you continue to experience Office and Outlook slowness.

Moving forward: Is this the "new normal"?

Office Online and Exchange Online are the future. The good parts of the Exchange Online are good; virtually unlimited mailbox size and online access anywhere – in the office, at home or any place in the world.

We are preparing an Office 365 resource site that will provide Office news, help articles, tip sheets and training resources. It will become a central point for information about Office 365 at Partners.

We should be able to stop any freezing or crashing of the Office 365 applications. The Windows 10 rollout that will occur during the next 18 months will upgrade or replace most of the computers across the MGH/MGPO, which also will improve Office 365 performance. Microsoft also will push out mandatory updates every 3 or 6 months.

We also are reorganizing how we support Office 365. Going forward we will treat it as a critical administrative system – not a utility – and are moving it under John Stone, from IS Finance and Administrative Systems. As the tiger team winds down, John’s team will manage Office as they do Peoplesoft and other business systems.

We will use our clout and join with our peer institutions to push Microsoft to improve performance, add features and reduce the number of logins. We may never eliminate that nagging sensation of “it used to be better, it used to be faster” – but we will get Office 365 stable and will increase its performance. 


Read more articles from the 06/29/18 Hotline issue.