What is a Work Package?

Projects consist of a multitude of small tasks that can easily overwhelm and confuse teams if they are not properly organised and managed. With projects becoming increasingly complex in our fast-paced and interconnected environment, being able to properly drill down, compartmentalise and manage projects in smaller workable chunks is vital to keeping projects moving. Work packages, with the help of the work breakdown structure, aim to help project managers do exactly that.

What is a Work Package?

A work package is the foundational building block of a work breakdown structure. It is the smallest unit within the WBS that acts much like a mini-project, that when combined with other work packages, creates a complete project.

The act of breaking down projects into smaller parts, also known as decomposition, allows teams to break down projects into smaller manageable chunks that can be worked on simultaneously to optimise time and resources. 

The main purpose of a work package is to provide teams with a clear set of information and steps that can be followed, communicated and completed within a set deadline. The completion of all work packages should lead to all predefined objectives being achieved and the overall completion of the project.

The Benefits of Work Packages

Work packages bring a wide range of benefits to organisations beyond simply breaking down projects. These benefits include its ability to:

Improve communication, collaboration and handover processes within teams

Work packages help keep teams on the same page and allow them to better communicate and collaborate with one another. With its clearly defined steps, objectives, responsibilities and more, team members know exactly what is expected of them and how they can get the job done. 

Additionally, work packages are extremely useful when activities need to be handed over to other teams or external vendors. It allows them to instantly understand what needs to be done without overloading them with unnecessary detail or providing them with too little. Other teams can easily pick up where other teams left off and keep projects moving.

Provide clear understanding and control over workloads

By clearly defining objectives, deliverables and other expectations, leaders can clearly understand the different workloads they are putting on their team members, identify areas that may be overloaded or underutilised that can be optimised and make sure that these workloads are controlled and managed to accommodate real-life conditions rather than overly optimistic projections.

Boost project productivity and efficiency

One of the key benefits of breaking down projects into smaller work packages is that it allows teams to identify different areas of the project that can be completed simultaneously. This helps improve overall productivity and efficiency within projects as teams are cutting down timelines and optimising resources within their project. 

Enable more accurate cost estimations

A work package helps identify different costs down to their singular activities rather than summarising them in big overarching sections that can miss out on critical details and lead to unexpected costs. Work packages help identify specific costs such as direct labour expenses, material and equipment costs, travel costs as well as other indirect costs linked to all work packages. This also helps teams identify areas of cost inefficiency that can be improved on an individual work package level.

Enhance project measuring, monitoring and managing activities

With work packages, teams can track their project measurements on a granular level which lets them have a better understanding of day-to-day activities and progress. This allows teams to get a better understanding of real-time project conditions as well as identify specific areas that can be slowing down or costing the overall project. 

Elements of a Work Package

The elements in a work package can vary depending on the methodology, software and level of depth your team requires. However, work packages typically contain several of the following elements:

Work package objective

An individual work package typically aims to achieve one or more project objectives. This section clearly identifies the specific project objectives the work package aims to achieve at completion. It also typically provides a general outline of different methods and actions needed to produce the deliverables or outputs that achieve the project objective.

Description of activities

This section describes the series of activities that need to be completed by the team to complete the work package. It should be comprehensive, structured and concise while making sure to link back to the objectives, methods and outputs/deliverables of the work package and project as a whole.

Timeframe and milestones

After listing out all the necessary activities, teams can estimate a realistic timeframe and deadline for when the work package can be completed, typically outlining the expected start date and the latest date of completion. Depending on the type of project, these timeframes can be measured in days, weeks or months. Additionally, the timeframes or timelines also include clearly define milestones that act as signifying events or checkpoints within the work package that helps validate project progress. This can come in the form of important decision making moments or the completion of a deliverable.

Outputs and deliverables

The completion of activities should result in specific outputs or deliverables. While an output can be both tangible and intangible, a deliverable is typically a physical output that is tied to a specific objective of the work package and project. Deliverables can be further categorised as external deliverables that are catered to customers and stakeholders, and internal deliverables that are produced to help facilitate the execution of a project. It is important that both types of deliverables are clearly identified and listed within the work package plan.

Roles and responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities within a work package can vary depending on the complexity and amount of partners within a project. With multi-partner projects, it is important to outline the specific roles of each partner and stakeholder to maintain clarity. It is typically best practice to allocate a single organisation and individual as the oversight of the work package owner. Additionally, individual activities and tasks should be allocated to specific team members, leaders or managers to make sure all tasks are accounted for, monitored and managed by an individual person.

Relationship with other work packages

While work packages are meant to be granular and individual, it is important to also identify the different relationships with other work packages and how they are interconnected with each other on the grander project level. This can help teams better understand the order of steps they need to take as well as the steps necessary to complete to start other activities within the project. These interrelations are typically represented in visual graphs such as Gantt charts, flow charts or diagrams to make them easy to understand.

Best practices for Work Packages

While the way a team or organisation creates and implements their work packages and work breakdown structure may vary, there are some general best practices to make sure you are making the most of your work packages. Here are some general tips.

Calculate work package performance with Earned Value Management

While work packages are great at tracking progress, it typically is unable to truly calculate the performance and value generated by each individual activity and package on its own. By pairing it with Earned Value Management tools and techniques, teams can integrate their work package progress with overall project scope, cost and schedule measures to provide a more multi-dimensional understanding of work package performance. 

Pmo365 is able to integrate your work packages with earned value management tools that allow teams to calculate the planned and earned value of activities down to the granular level and gain a real-time understanding of project progress and performance.

Keep your work packages realistic

It can be tempting as a team leader to make timeframes and milestones that are overly optimistic in the hopes of pushing and motivating teams to work faster. However, overly optimistic estimations often lead to unmet expectations, work overload and long-term projects delays. By keeping your work packages realistic and achievable, teams can more confidently assure stakeholders of their progress and results while also allowing teams to feel accomplished.

Actively collaborate with team members when defining work packages

One way to keep your work packages realistic and achievable is by actively collaborating with team members when defining work packages. It can be hard to make realistic estimates if the team leader themselves does not explicitly understand the amount of work required for each task and activity. Making sure that team members have a space to openly share their thoughts and give their input to work packages helps leaders make sure they are not overloading or underutilizing the resources and talent within their teams. Balancing workloads is an increasingly important aspect of maintaining healthy teams with research showing that one in three Australian-based employees cited burnout as the primary reason for resignation.

Tap into the power of Work Breakdown Structures with pmo365

Want to make the most out of your work packages and tap into the full potential of a work breakdown structure? Our PPM experts know just how valuable a proper WBS tool can be for your organisation and have some great insight for you and your teams.  If you want to have a look at how we help take your WBS to the next level, particularly in regard to project schedule management, have a read here. If you want to see an intuitive WBS tool in action, make sure to book a free trial with our PPM experts today!

Daniel Stopher

Daniel Stopher

Dan is the Chief Customer Success Officer at pmo365. Helping clients globally achieve project portfolio success. Dan also loves surfing the eastern coast of Australia.

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