Group Policy Settings May Not Work in Microsoft Office Since 2013

This article is for IT system administrators and managers.

Introduction

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

Microsoft Office 2013 logo

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 Microsoft Office 2013 and 2016 except for the Volume License editions (Office Standard and Office Professional Plus), and certain Office 365 subscriptions. This means most Group Policy settings will be ignored in all retail editions: Office Home & Student (which is not licensed for business use anyway), Office Home & Business, and even Office Professional.

Microsoft put no notification about this in any of the many pre-sales information pages on their website about Office, prior to and after the release of Office 2013. Given that Group Policy processing worked in all editions of prior versions 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 2013 or 2016 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.

Currently, only the ProPlus and Enterprise E3 and E5 editions of Office 365 support configuring the Office desktop software through Group Policy. All Business, Education, and other Enterprise plans don't.

Why the Change?

We can only speculate, but it probably has to do with Microsoft's push toward their subscription services, both old (Volume Licensing) and new (Office 365), as better revenue generators. Apparently Microsoft decided to keep the price of PKC editions about the same, but make the product itself less valuable. You may remember that Office 2013 PKC 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, but somehow their having disabled Group Policy has gotten no publicity.

What is perplexing about this is why, if Microsoft wants to increase the perceived relative value of their subscription services, they would not have advertised the newly contrived advantage of buying the Volume License or high-end Office 365 editions as opposed to the PKC. 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 just couldn't come up with a way to advertise this without making them look bad. Who knows? Whatever it is, 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:

  1. Configuring the Group Policy options you want in the Microsoft Office templates,
  2. Looking on a workstation in the Policies key of the registry to see what's there, then
  3. 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 at 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.