It is acknowledged, internationally, that health-care practitioners' work differs between and urban areas. While several factors affect individual teams' activities, there is little understanding about how patterns of work evolve. Consideration of work in relation to local circumstances is important for training, devising contracts and redesigning services. Six case studies centred on Scottish rural and urban general practices were used to examine, in-depth, the activity of primary health-care teams. Quantitative workload data about patient contacts were collected over 24 months. Interviews and diaries revealed insightful qualitative data. Findings revealed that rural general practitioners and district nurses tended to conduct more consultations per practice patient compared with their urban counterparts. Conditions seen and work tasks varied between case study teams. Qualitative data suggested that the key reasons for variation were: local needs and circumstances; choices made about deployment of available time, team composition and the extent of access to other services. Primary care teams might be viewed as adaptive organization, with co-evolution of services produced by health professionals and local people. The study highlights limitations in the application of workload data and suggests that understanding the nature of work in relation to local circumstances is important in service redesign.