This paper discusses an aspect of data analysis arising from an ethnographic study of acute mental health nursing conducted in an inner city psychiatric unit. The data were collected in the form of field notes. These were made during and following episodes of participant observation on one acute ward and on a psychiatric intensive care unit over a period of 20 months. Acute wards have been subject to continuing criticism as both sites of care and treatment for mentally ill people and of nursing work. However, the practical operations of this social world remain largely unexamined. It is argued that without this understanding, mundane work methods will always be regarded as an impediment to work that is regarded as ‘therapeutic’ and therefore, of importance. The focus will be on phenomena named the ‘virtual ward’. The research has demonstrated that the boundaries of nurses’ responsibility reach far beyond the ward's spatial environment, both physically and communicatively. The complexity of the work that takes place within the virtual ward and the skills required for its successful completion are taken for granted, but are also a practical source of frustration. Anonymized examples from the practice site studied are used to illuminate the discussion. Working within the virtual ward is part of the messy reality of nurses’ work. It is argued that understanding and respecting this reality is necessary if we are to be seriously and consistently ambitious about practice development.