SUE HOPE is a Learning Specialist at Xero, an online accounting software company for small businesses. Sue and her colleagues have created the Meaningful Meetings program within Xero to encourage others to increase the productivity of their online meetings – and the results are promising! Company meetings are starting to have more structure, take less time, and be more productive and fun. 



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Original transcript

Lisette:  Hello, everybody, and welcome to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today on the line all the way from Wellington, New Zealand, I have el president a Sue Hope. I have Sue Hope at the learning specialist, a learning specialist at Zero. And I’m super excited to talk to you today, Sue, because of what you and your colleagues at zero have done, which is to implement something called meaningful meetings. So I’m just giving a little bit of a taster for people. But first, before we get into meaningful meetings, I want to ask, what does your virtual office look like? What do you need to get your work done?

Sue:  Oh thank you for inviting me and I’m so happy to be here, so thank you. My virtual office, well, I have more than one office but at the moment I’m sitting at home. I’m up in my kitchen, I have a laptop which you know, we can connect anywhere in the world and I’m part of a global team. So I have colleagues in Australia, America, and the UK and yeah, we connect through Google Suite in we have select channels and yeah, it’s great. Zero is highly resourced when it comes to tech and as a tech company, it’s fantastic.

Lisette:  So that’s lucky. So do you work from home most of the time? Or do you work from an office most of the time, or does it switch? What does your working style look like?

Sue:  I’m at switches. I like to work from home at least once a week. We have we call it flexible working. The rest of the time I travel into Wellington into the city, it takes me about half an hour to commute. We have a back office there that is about 800 staff. So I’m part of a team because I’m a part of corporate services learning experience, all our customers are our own staff. We need to be in an office sometimes to connect with people, so yeah.

Lisette:  I can understand that. Now the office or their hot desks or does everybody have their own desks? What? How? What does that look like?

Sue:  Um, we operate an activity-based working structure. So we have a locker and then desks are allocated, I sit in a neighborhood. So we often have the same desk that came rotate and then yeah, the software developers and engineers they all, that’s all how desks get basically.

Lisette:  Okay.

Sue:  That’s really good.

Lisette:  Okay, and then what does Zero do for those who’ve never heard of it?

Sue:  So it’s a cloud-based accounting software company. We disrupted the accounting world a few years back, and we basically support small business owners to run their own accounts and bookkeeping. And that’s all done in the cloud and online and that’s fantastic.

Lisette:  Yeah, yeah I can imagine being a small business owner myself. Yeah, the accounting part is challenging and more challenging for some than for others, for me, very challenging. So then how does Zero work together online? So you’ve got colleagues, you know, in the US, you’ve got colleagues in Australia, New Zealand, you’ve got colleagues in the UK. So we’re going to, I’m going to have to ask about time zones because that’s the obvious question. But do you have to work with people with these people all the time? Or is it more segmented into groups into regions?

Sue:  It’s both, it depends who you are, and we set my team is a global team. So we have structures in place where every month we have a global team meeting, but then at other times, we have regional meetings. So the New Zealand team will have a meeting once a week. Other teams, they’re split across regions as well and I suppose because we’re a New Zealand based company, the time zone that is our time zone is the one that’s the dominant one and that’s a somewhat unusual for people coming from America and the UK, which is often where the big companies come from. So, at the moment, that’s really challenging because our time zones are in daylight saving means that the time zones are really wide. So we have to be really flexible and talk a lot about how do we work together well, and create those sorts of rhythms. So sometimes, like in tonight, it’s the evening and I’m talking to you. And other times, I’ll be eating up in the morning, really early and talking to my colleagues in the UK. But yeah, I think it’s a challenge. That’s one of our big challenges really, is how to how do you get that to work really well?

Lisette:  What are some of the things that you’ve tried? So it sounds like you’re willing to stay up late or get up early? Is it the same with your other colleagues then?

Sue:  Yeah, and it depends, like as you know, people’s lives and how they work and some people are rested on two, we have helped seniors. So, you know, they work across time zones, for example. So some stuff, for example, in New Zealand start at 11 am and they work through to you know, maybe nine 8 pm so that they’re covering Australia, that sort of thing. I think it’s all about negotiation. So, you know, you need to find out whether people have families, and can they do late at night, and you need to constantly be asking is that does that suit, I think that one of the challenging ones we have as Australia is only two hours right often. And so if you sit a meeting at 9am in New Zealand, that can be 7am for them, and that’s not really going to work?

Lisette:  Yeah that’s pretty early.

Sue:  Yeah, we’re trying to talk about thinking globally, rather than thinking locally, when you’re trying to see these rhythms and then what’s the great thing is though, you can dial in from a meeting at home, right? So in the morning or in the evening, that’s why we have these flexible arrangements so people can connect and work through those time zone issues.

Lisette:  Yeah, I think it definitely remains a challenge because it’s physics, right? We can’t squeeze the world closer together. It’s simply a physics problem. So it’s not something that ‘oh, if we just rearrange our teams that it solves that.’ So time zones, I think will always be challenging.

Sue:  Totally, yep and it’s about creating that conversation within teams and people being empowered to say, actually, that doesn’t suit me. Are we able to work through that? And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges in a bigger team or, you know, how do we get people to be comfortable speaking out about that?

Lisette:  Right to be able to say like, ‘no, actually, that doesn’t work for me.’ Yeah, I use my husband as an excuse, because we have an agreement that I don’t work before 9 am or after 9 pm. So in between, that doesn’t mean I have to work 12 hours of course during the day, but it just means that those within those 12 hours I have to get everything done within that time. So because before I was, you know, I was working a lot later and a lot earlier, depending on what was going on in the day. So yeah,

Sue:  That’s right and you know we want people to be able to make those decisions for themselves. And that’s also part of it, building teams, right? You need to have that conversation and what’s going to work.

Lisette:  So one of the things though, that you that Zero is doing it sounds like is trying to get people to be able to work globally or flexibly or remote with each other in order to strengthen the company. And the reason why I’m having you on this podcast, in particular, is because this program that you have developed, that you and your colleagues have developed called meaningful meetings, I thought was so impressive, and has been implemented in such a fun way that I wanted to share it with the with the podcast audience because I think it’ll really help people. So do you want to tell us about the history of how meaningful meeting started and what it is then we’ll dive into what you’re doing.

Sue:  So it started in Australia, as a result of a restructure where some teams ended up having people in different locations geographically. And they were struggling with connecting and engaging and how could they work together. And then I got brought into the project, which is often what happens, they make a request. And that’s when I meet you Lissette and I did your workshops, which was fantastic.

Lisette:  Plug, plug, yeah, take the word together anywhere workshop people. Okay, and we’re moving on here but thank you.

Sue:  And then there was a group of leaders in Australia called the constant reminders. I’m not sure where that name came from, but they called themselves a tribe. They’d already done a little bit of discovery and research about what was working and not working for them around meetings and I basically injected myself into that group and said I’m really keen to help how do we make something happen? And yeah, so that’s the history. And from that, we came up with this idea of curating a playbook to support people having more meaningful meetings, which was a term that we came up within a brainstorm. And we didn’t necessarily want people to have all the answers. We just wanted it to be a short playbook that people could get a few tips out of and choose one thing and then start changing and making different habits.

Lisette:  So what were some of the challenges about the meetings that to start with? What are some of the things that were going wrong?

Sue:  People have no structure. They didn’t understand why they were at the meeting. They had big meetings with lots of people and then maybe the one person who made the decision wasn’t there. People were distracted or were interrupted, you know, they always had their phones on them or their computers open. Yes, some people were slightly bored. You know, it’s like, and then the other thing was time, so like people were late or they ran over or you know, you’re always chasing your tail, really. And so there were a few other things that we identified, I think also, what was happening was the time zone issue which we’ve discussed, and then that thing of how do I be more effective when I haven’t met the person that I’m meeting with and I’m meeting them for the first time online or meeting teams online? You know, how do I understand speed and pace and what are the best techniques to use? So, yeah, that was some of the challenges.

Lisette:  Sound like very common challenges for businesses around the world indeed, that just meetings are terrible. Meetings in person are terrible and then when you take them online, it’s like going deeper into Dante’s Inferno and have the online meetings become really terrible.

Sue:  Yeah definitely.

Lisette:  Okay, so you’ve developed meaningful meetings and how does it work? So say I’m somebody and I want to improve my meeting. What do I do?

Sue:  So we’ve got a playbook. It’s an online tool, but I did I actually have a paper copy here. So it’s a branded, short twelve pages. It has three sections, tips and tricks before meetings, during meetings and after meetings. Then it has a whole suite of resources that link to fantastic people around the world who are already creating this stuff such as yourself, and lucid meetings and a few others. So we’ve also found some amazing people here in New Zealand, and we’ve basically borrowed their things and put them into a guidebook, and so people start there and we’ve suggested that they chose one or two things to work on over a month. And we then have a select channel. In the select channel, we get them to share their stories, what they are experimenting with, how it is going, you know, we have sort of a conversation. We’ve also done a little bit of a campaign. So we’ve gotten to the marketing team. And we’ve created sort of six main things and we have those running on our television screens and things like that. So it just reminds people of some of the main points. So for example, one of them is at the start of a meeting, you should always check in with everyone. And so, you know it becomes sort of the key messages get phone through. And then we also created these little things which are vinyl’s s and these vinyl’s stick onto the tables and meeting rooms. So we’ve gone around every office at Zero, and we have these little vinyl sticking on tables. And it just is another way of doing the key messages. And then finally, we’ve gone and captured a whole group of people who are really passionate about this already. Some people might call them champions and we’ve encouraged them to adopt something new, but also to catch other people doing things that are great. And we created this suite of stickers-

Lisette:  I love them, so for those who are listening, Sue is holding up and you’ll have to check the video she’s held up as an example of the vinyls and an example of the stickers, which looks awesome.

Sue:  And the stickers, there’s actually nine of them and the idea with a sticker is we’ve used the theory of learning nudges, which because I’m a learning specialist, I obviously like to have some theory around behavior change The idea with the champions is they’re going to give the stickers out when they catch someone doing something really awesome. So for example, one of the stickers is an agenda master. So we make it send a calendar invite that has the agenda already in it, and then the person checks in at the start and sees here’s the agenda. This is what we’re covering today. Then they would earn the sticker of agenda master and the sticker then gets put onto the person’s laptop. So I don’t know if this is common with other companies, but at Zero everyone decorates their laptop lids with stickers, and it’s become a thing and so we’re just building on that, right. So yeah, we’ve got a feedback guru, a speedy meeting wiz a next steps Pro, a kickoff expert, Christian savvy, before the meeting master. So that’s someone who’s, you know, nailed the team that when they invite people they’ve planed it all and they’ve got that all coming, an engagement master. So that’s someone who’s made sure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute in a meeting. And then yeah, another one is communicating and team. So we’re rolling this out at the moment, it’s exciting. And each are a region in the world is has an Alex team member, my colleagues, and they will also help getting these stickers out into the world and to the zero world. And what we’re hoping is people will start to go, ‘oh, how did you get there’, and then we’ll have a little bit of momentum around encouraging people to adopt some new behaviors.

Lisette:  I really love it. So something as simple as a sticker on the back of the laptop can encourage people to inquire about and also just give them the extra like what I like what you said the learning nudge to try something new because-

Sue:  That’s right.

Lisette:  Because [inaudible 15:59] still have to be bad. And like we were saying before, it’s not rocket science in terms of making them better. It’s most meetings if you start an end on time, and if you have an agenda, then people will think that that’s a good meeting, so-

Sue:  That’s right and our organization is also very based around a strengths-based approach, and you know, the positive psychology work that is around the world. And so rather than catching people and complaining about things that aren’t working, what we’re trying to catch as people doing things really well, and acknowledging that they’ve got a talent and a strength and saying, ‘yay, congratulations, here we go.’

Lisette:  Well, I can imagine that there’s a lot of people out there that are wanting to add tools to their toolbox, and really what you’re encouraging is just ‘hey, not every meeting is going to need a feedback guru necessarily, but jeez if you have that in your back pocket and you need it in a meeting, man that’s going to be really effective when you have it.’ So it’s a matter of strategy people new skills, and it sounds like this is just a fun way of people learning new skills around having online meetings or even just meetings in general.

Sue:  Yeah, absolutely and I think you know, I mean we’re starting small, we’ve just chosen a few things and we’ll obviously have to review it and see how it goes over the next few months but I’m confident that we know that this will engaged a lot of our staff. So yeah,

Lisette:  So one of the things that you’ve said to us is that you found these champions, these sort of people that are just more excited than others about doing it. How have you found these people?

Sue:  Mainly through talking to business partners who work in people experience, which is the equivalent to human resources and other companies and also people who perhaps have just self-identified. So they may have come heard about us talking about meaningful meetings and they’ve gone ‘oh I’d like to be involved with it,’ and so then will say, ‘would you be interested in doing this with your team?’ And they’re like, ‘yes,’ and then we give them a few briefing notes and off they go yeah so.

Lisette:  Love it, so I’d just like to mention it, because companies out there who are wondering, like ‘oh I wonder if anybody would be interested,’ and I’m thinking, ‘yes, there are people within your company that are weirdly excited about learning about online meetings and really give them the tools to run with it because they’ll inspire others.’

Sue:  That’s true and you know, rewinding back to when we started this journey in February, you know, we had a group of Australian, you know leaders, there’s twelve or thirteen of them who are in that group, right? And then, once they’ve shared it with the teams, then there’s always someone in those teams and who will share it with others. And that sort of just keeps rolling along like that, which is really helpful.

Lisette:  What are some of the ways that your meetings have changed at zero?

Sue:  It’s still early days, but what we’ve noticed is there’s more structure, which is good. People have adopted the idea of having a speedy meeting, which is a seating that you can do in Google. Because we’re a Google company, we use Google Suites and you can see calendar invites to, you know twenty-five minutes rather than thirty minutes or fifteen minutes rather than an hour. So there’s quite a few people trying it. The other thing we’ve noticed is, especially when you’re doing remote meetings with groups as people are trialing everyone being remote rather than having hybrid meetings. So I think we’ve found that to be really effective. It seems kind of weird to start with, especially when you have a group of people in one office, but when they’ve actually split up and all are all sitting in different locations, we find people can connect actually a lot stronger because they’re all in the same space. So they all have to operate the same way and you don’t those side conversations that often happen in a hot hybrid meeting. So yeah, and some of the things we noticed,

Lisette:   And the great hybrid meetings are difficult to do well for anybody, that’s just so the biggest challenge because when you have people in person, it’s just so much more powerful than when you also have people remote. So you have to have an excellent facilitator really, who knows what they’re doing, and a way to really connect the remote people in the room, so yeah,

Sue:  And I think that’ll be phase two of our project is to look at that facilitation role, and to grow experts and deep from that space definitely.

Lisette:  Yeah, those types of meetings are needed. We can’t always go all remote though I really love the idea of ‘yeah, let’s just all go remote,’ because then we level the playing field and everybody brings a piece of the meeting room with them, instead of having sort of this uneven nature of it, although hybrid meetings can be done well also, so not to disparage hybrid meetings, but do you need some extra attention on those. So one of the things that you were mentioning that I really loved but before we started recording, you were saying that people are now canceling more meetings also, which I really love. So it’s just because they’re giving people the courage to cancel meetings. So I wanted to just allow some time to speak to that.

Sue:  Yeah, I think we’re encouraging people to obviously have the right people at the right time in the right place when they’re sitting a meeting. But we’re also empowering and enabling people to say ‘actually, no, that doesn’t suit me, doesn’t work with my time zone. But also if people cancel, someone can’t come, don’t have the meeting, because if they the person that needs to make the decision, there’s no point having the meeting and then having another meeting because the decision-maker wasn’t there. Yeah, so I think that that’s starting and I think we’d like to keep encouraging that. That’s still a journey. We’re still on that journey but I think I’m New Zealand is in a time zone that can be really difficult for a lot of parts of the world, and so we’re just trying to encourage people to have that conversation about what suits them around that flexibility in the time that they can connect and that’s all we need for people to have conversations, right?

Lisette:  Right if the conversation itself will then happen, but it’s a matter of all the logistics and organizing and planning it and actually designing something that’s really productive, which is why we’re meeting, to begin with, is we either need to make a decision or we need to have a conversation about something.

Sue:  Yeah, that’s right and then, you know, I always talk about people having a gift of time. If we cancel a meeting, you’ve got time to do something else, so-

Lisette:  Yeah.

Sue:  So you know that’s great.

Lisette:  Yeah, I do secretly wish sometimes like that some meetings get canceled, like, ‘oh, yeah, I’ve got that extra two hours in my agenda.’ So yeah, but if you’re thinking that then maybe that meeting doesn’t need to happen.

Sue:  And it’s also about you know looking at meeting rhythms too. So, you know, there’s lots of sort of need to make adjustments and this is evolving, you know, so teams should always revisit how often they meet and when they meet and what their meetings are about so that they actually work for them. You know, I mean, that’s why we call it our playbook, a playbook, and a guide. We’re not mandating things for people because we know, lots of zeros do fabulous things. We’re just asking for them to have some improvements on what they’re doing, so.

Lisette:  Love it because I think this is what I teach in all the workshops is there’s no one right way to get remote working, right. It’s a series of little things that you adopt and what works for your team and what works for your people. I mean, I wish there was a right way I would be rich selling my silver bullet methodology for one right way but alas, alas, it’s a hundred right ways, which is also fun, keeps it interesting. So we’re running out of time, which is great. Crazy. I feel like I’ve just got started. But I do have a couple of questions. One is, for other companies who are just starting out with this, what have you learned? What would you advise other companies to do? Because clearly everybody needs better meetings. You know, they’re also trying to adopt meaningful meetings program, what would you advise them to do?

Sue:  And make sure you do a little bit of discovery and research. There’s no point reinventing wheels. There’s some amazing stuff that people are doing around the world. So yeah, curate steal, borrow, in, don’t reinvent. And secondly, start small. So you know, don’t you, it doesn’t need to be 100% perfect. Just start like with our playbook has by no means an extensive but it’s enough to start with, and then you can build on that as you go. And I think then the other tip I’d have is to use people’s strengths. So you know, I could recognize that the group in Australia, the content reminder tribe had some amazing talent, the people in there, and we’re utilized what they were interested in, and we’re really good at. And that helps me to then be able to deliver programs to their staff. So I think that was fantastic and yeah, finally being curious, you know, as an untapped skill, asking people why they do the things they do and you know, I think you just got to keep being open to other ways and into seeing things and you’ll go a long way.

Lisette:  I have to say that’s one of the things that I’ve learned from working with Judy Reese, who I’ve just recently introduced you to, is that there’s a whole bunch of communication techniques out there that can help you be curious, if you’re not a naturally curious person, for example, you can learn some effective communication techniques that will help you ask the right questions. So that even if you’re not particularly curious, you know how to ask those curious questions to get at the bottom of those. So yeah, expand the toolkit for your meetings, because I think like we were saying before, there, the competition is not that great. So if you really want to have awesome, meaningful meetings, there’s only a few things that you need to implement. It’s not rocket science, we do have to do it.

Sue:  Yeah, that’s the other part of you can create a resource, but then you’ve got to have a group of people out there who are going to help make the change. And that’s the biggest thing is to rally some people around us and then, you know, my role is to keep promoting it and keep pushing it and, you know, I call it a campaign, you know, we’re going to run this campaign for a year. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. We just have to keep persisting and keep encouraging people to, to try things and to make mistakes, but to also give it a go, you know, so I think that’s really important.

Lisette:  Your meetings will come out worse for having tried this, that’s the best part. Like no matter what, your meetings are going to come out better. There may be a few explosions along the way. But overall, yeah, things are going to work out okay. Well, I love the focus that you’ve put on this. I wish every organization would put the same sort of enthusiasm and focus into their online meetings, think of the things that we could do, think of all the time we could get back if we had great online meetings. Just think, yeah, think of the people that we could get together for solving important problems around the world if we could just figure out how to-

Sue:  Yeah, exactly, I mean my ultimate goal is to have the number of meetings and at Zero that that’s pretty that’s a big goal, right? It’ll take a while. But I think we can do it if we are really productive and efficient and we have some really great systems in place for people to know how to just keep those meetings running along, you know,

Lisette:  Yeah, and it can be a lot more fun when we’re communicating better with each other than I think teams have more fun. That’s sort of my focus is how do we infuse a bit of fun into our work life because we shouldn’t…the best is when we enjoy what we do and the people that we work with.

Sue:  I totally agree, yeah.

Lisette:  So yeah, so last question, which is, if people want to learn more about you and more about meaningful meetings, how should they get in contact with you?

Sue:  Um, that’s a good question. Probably the best places LinkedIn. I have a profile on there. So I would imagine if you can connect with me via, otherwise, we could probably talk about maybe putting an email address or something with the podcast.

Lisette:  Okay, yeah I’ll definitely include the LinkedIn link in the show notes so that people can access you there. And then if you decide you want to add your email address because you could get a lot of emails, but a lot of spam but we’ll see. We’ll talk about that. But thank you, Sue for being on the podcast today and for sharing your story. I hope you inspire others to have better meaningful meetings as well.

Sue:  Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s absolute pleasure.

Lisette:  All right, everybody. Until next time be powerful.



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