Zuken Traditions: The Bristol Office Christmas Challenge, UK

British people have a reputation for their quirky sense of humour; while technical folk are known for developing their own brand of amusements. So how would you expect an office full of smart, British technical people to celebrate Christmas? Well, the Bristol Christmas Challenge must be seen to be believed – and perhaps I can inspire you if you need to come up with a festive party game!

Ping-pong balls, high-vis and chopsticks

If you’d visited the Zuken Technology Centre in Bristol on the penultimate Friday before the Christmas break last year, you’d have been met with a baffling sight. In the stationery cupboard someone was up a step ladder, dressed in a hard hat, high-vis jacket, goggles and gloves, changing a light bulb. Nearby, another group transferred coloured ping-pong balls from one desk to another, using chopsticks. In the main meeting room, the senior management team moved erratically around a large table, blowing three festive, helium-filled balloons along as they went. All par for the course for the Bristol Christmas Challenge.

An afternoon of purposeful silliness

Designed in the 1990s as a shared celebration to counter the slow drift home of staff on the last working days before Christmas, this annual afternoon of purposeful silliness is now in its 29th year.

The rules are:

  • Join a team of four and devise a challenge for all the other teams to do.
  • Each challenge must take no longer than three minutes to complete and must involve three people.
  • Challenges must not involve spillable liquids or a computer.
  • Each team must receive a score on completing the challenge.

Over the years, hundreds of challenges have been invented

Common themes include:

Building things – for example, the tallest structure, using, on different occasions, sheets of paper, aluminium foil, paperclips, Lego bricks or marshmallows and raw spaghetti.

Recognising things – countries from just their outlines, Christmas tunes from just their beaten rhythm, company logos only partially visible, or TV theme tunes gargled.

Transferring things – peas using straws (by sucking), ping-pong balls using straws (by blowing), water using thimbles (how did that one get past the organisers?) or, of course, helium-filled balloons.

There have also been many wilder ideas: travelling around the room riding an office chair train or a trolley-based ‘punt’; moving a rubber band down your head using only facial muscles; making an artwork from fuzzy felt; jousting with cardboard lances on office chair ‘horses’.

There is a trophy and prizes for the team coming up with the most popular challenge of the year. The most favoured ones seem to be those that involve close collaboration, some strategy, and often a physical element – but most of all, that are fun to do. There are also prizes for the team with the most points.

Why has the Christmas Challenge lasted so long?

Over the years, Zuken UK has been based in towns 40 miles apart, our European HQ has been on two different continents, our name has changed three times, and we’ve had perhaps seven CEOs. The Bristol Christmas Challenge is a tradition that seems to have woven itself into our office DNA.

What’s in it for management? Well, the staff have been known to smile and wink and say ‘team building’. But, of course, that’s exactly what it is. It’s an afternoon of lots of mingling; touring around the building, improving feelings of ownership of all the spaces; intense communication, within and between teams; developing strategies by consensus; adapting those strategies if they prove not to work; continuous collaboration – and a fair bit of innovative thinking.

I think our Christmas Challenge both requires and promotes a positive office culture and a workforce at ease with itself.

What’s in it for staff? Devising the challenges is a challenge in itself, but is often also very satisfying. A common sight at this time of year is a group of people returning from a room somewhere, carrying an assortment of props, smiling and animated, having rehearsed the idea they’ve dreamt up.

And, of course, the afternoon is a lot of fun!

Written by

I'm a Developer in the Bristol, UK, office. I first joined Racal Redac, as it was, in 1983, attracted by the prospect of programming object-oriented graphical applications in C under Unix! Since my mid-teens I’ve had a particular interest in developing graphics and user interfaces. I'm also passionate about being involved with basketball and have size 15 (UK), 16 (US), 50 (European) feet. I don’t enjoy parsley.