Group Policy Settings May Not Work in Microsoft Office Since 2013
This article is for IT system administrators and managers.
Going back to the year 2000, we IT system administrators have enjoyed the unique power of Group Policies on Microsoft Windows Server. With Group Policies, we can configure system settings on Windows-based desktops and laptops throughout the organization, as well as set options for supported applications, such as Microsoft Office. This capability is partially what justifies Microsoft Office being the highest-priced suite of office productivity software. We can easily preconfigure and lock down settings such as Outlook's Auto Archive, default file save locations for Word and Excel, locations of shared templates, and Trusted Locations and other security settings, for all current and future users and computers.
Changes for Office 2013
If you manage Windows Server based networks, and license Microsoft Office 2013 or 2016 using the retail Product Key Card (PKC), you may have noticed that these Office applications ignore your Group Policy settings.
This is because Microsoft disabled Group Policy processing in the retail editions Microsoft Office 2013, 2016, and 2019.
Microsoft put no notification about this in their pre-sales information, prior to or after the release of Office 2013. Given that Group Policy processing worked in all editions since Office 2000, it wouldn't even occur to an IT system administrator that it would suddenly be disabled for 2013, especially not in an edition with "Business" or "Professional" in the name, which implies a managed network. And if an IT system administrator tested Office using the evaluation edition downloaded from his MSDN subscription, Group Policy processing would function properly, because MSDN provides the same installers as for Volume License editions. He would be sorely surprised if he then deployed an upgrade for the company's users with the retail edition, expecting to configure settings with Group Policy.
Office 365 is affected as well. When Microsoft rolled out its new lineup of Office 365 subscriptions starting in late 2014, Group Policy processing, which had been included in all prior editions, was removed from some of the offerings.
The table below shows which editions of the desktop Microsoft Office software will support Group Policy processing.
|Edition||License Type||Group Policy Supported|
|Office Home & Student||Retail (PKC), perpetual||No|
|Office Home & Business||Retail (PKC), perpetual||No|
|Office Professional||Retail (PKC), perpetual||No|
|Office Standard||Volume License, perpetual||Yes|
|Office Professional Plus||Volume License, perpetual||Yes|
|Office 365 Home||Subscription||No|
|Office 365 Personal||Subscription||No|
|Office 365 Business||Subscription||No|
|Office 365 Business Premium||Subscription||No|
|Office 365 Business Essentials||Subscription||N/A1|
|Office 365 ProPlus||Subscription||Yes|
|Office 365 Enterprise||Subscription||Yes2|
|Office 365 Education||Subscription||No|
|Office 365 Government||Subscription||Yes2|
- Office 365 Business Essentials does not include Office desktop software.
- Office 365 Enterprise E1 and Government G1 do not include Office desktop software. The E3, E5, G3, and G5 subscriptions do, and Group Policy processing is supported for software installed through those subscriptions.
Why the Change?
We can only speculate, but it probably has to do with Microsoft's push toward their subscription services as better revenue generators than retail or volume licenses. Or, for companies that resist going with subscriptions, to force them to purchase volume license software, which is more expensive than retail. To do this, apparently Microsoft decided to keep the price of retail editions about the same, but make the product itself less valuable. You may remember that Office 2013 retail editions originally came with a new restriction in the EULA that they would be tied forever to the first computer they were installed on, as opposed to previous versions that could be uninstalled and then reinstalled on another computer. Once this came to light, Microsoft backtracked in the face of customer outrage. The Group Policy limitations, however, have remained.
For the changes in Office 365, a briefing document from 2014 for Microsoft partners specifically says to "upsell" from Business editions to Enterprise for companies that need Group Policy, so the motive for reducing features in the Business editions is obvious.
What is perplexing about this is why, if Microsoft wants to increase the relative value of their more expensive offerings to drive customers there, they have never advertised this newly contrived advantage of buying Office through Volume License or subscribing to high-end Office 365 editions. To this day, the product information for retail editions and Office 365 Business editions do not mention Group Policy at all. Who knows why? Maybe it was poor communication about strategies and goals between the different entities within Microsoft that make these decisions. Or maybe once the software was published with Group Policy disabled, Microsoft couldn't come up with a way to advertise this without making them look bad.
Whatever the reason, the end result was a lot of surprised and disappointed IT system administrators, VARs, system integrators, and other resellers of Microsoft software.
Workarounds and Solutions
The key takeaway, unfortunately, is that Microsoft hasn't budged on this issue.
If your needs are not complex, you may consider setting the options through Registry Preferences in the relevant Group Policy. You can discover exactly what registry settings you need by:
- Configuring the Group Policy options you want in the Microsoft Office templates,
- Looking on a workstation in the Policies key of the registry to see what's there, then
- Migrating those entries into a Registry Preferences object to update each workstation's or user's registry in the proper locations (not in the Policies key).
You can do this because Windows does download the Group Policy settings for Microsoft Office and applies them to the Policies key in the registry, even if the workstation is running an edition of Office that will ignore them.
Of course, since the settings will be in the regular areas of the registry and not in the Policies key when you use Registry Preferences, you will not be able to lock them down. The user will be able to change these settings through the normal Office menus and options.
Another solution is to migrate to the Volume License edition, if perpetual licenses are still of interest to you. However, this means paying about 70% more for Microsoft Office Standard through the Open Business Volume License program as opposed to the Home & Business PKC, or 20% more for Office Professional Plus (Open Business) than for the Office Professional PKC if your users need Microsoft Access. And, you would have to decide how to dispose of or reassign the PKC licenses. This is the highest cost solution, but it completely solves the Group Policy problem.
Finally, of course, you can replace your PKC licenses with an Office 365 ProPlus subscription, which costs about 50% of the perpetual license per year, and will no longer be usable once your subscription lapses, but does provide automatic version upgrades so long as you sustain your subscription. This is the only edition you'd want to get to resolve this problem; if you were inclined to be on an Enterprise E3 or E5 plan, of course, you would be on that plan already and probably wouldn't be reading this article.