Robert Corrao has seven different Macs, an Apple TV, and of course an iPhone and an iPad to carry with him wherever he goes. The chief operating officer at LAC Group, a professional services company in Los Angeles, doesn’t mind loading himself down with technology, but he’s not always a fan of what it brings: Email, and plenty of it. He estimates he receives 500 emails a day—and that the average inbox in his organization contains 5000 emails. It’s all too much, and too little of it is important.

“It kills me,” he said. “Just deleting—not even reading—that still takes a good chunk of the day.”

So Corrao is leading his company on an effort to get rid of email—not the individual pieces that clutter up the inboxes, but email itself. LAC Group spent recent months experimenting with alternative ways of communicating and sharing information, testing everything from public social networks like Google+ to project management software like 37signals’ Basecamp to private networks like Salesforce’s Chatter.com.

“My pet project for the next year is to get us away [from email],” he said. “I think email is so archaic. It’s the bane of my existence.”

Corrao isn’t alone. The French company Atos made headlines last year when it completely banned internal emails. And the next generation of workers is proving email averse: The Pew Research Center reported in March that 63 percent of teens exchange text messages every day while just 6 percent exchanged email on a daily basis.

Email interruptions statistic

But is it really possible to do without email? To find out, Macworld surveyed Apple-savvy businesses and workers who have dramatically curtailed—or completely stopped—their use of this ubiquitous technology. To avoid overload, focus productivity, and even create a sort of virtual water cooler for employees, the trail-blazers have moved to a mix of video, chat, and social networking. Some solutions are imposed from the top; others grow up from the grass roots. And some wouldn’t exist without the possibilities created in recent years by the iPhone and iPad. Here’s how these businesses are making it happen.

Creating new tools from scratch

Some companies have become less reliant on email by creating their own systems—heavily reliant on social networking features—to make sure the right people get the right information at the right time.

A set of sensors Long before most people knew the words “Facebook” or “Twitter”—or, for that matter, “iPad”—the Canadian digital marketing firm Klick Health was already trying to figure a way to ease back on workers’ email burdens.

Klick
We think there’s better ways to organize work and more powerful ways to get information to people.”--Leerom Segal, Klick Health

“We think there’s better ways to organize work, and more powerful ways to get information to people,” said Klick CEO Leerom Segal. He pointed to Facebook as an example for ideal communication—a tool that lets users engage in conversations, but that also uses data generated by those conversations to point those users at other information they might find useful.

So eight years ago, Klick created Genome, an intranet system that combines social networking with old-fashioned task management software. Genome’s homepage features a Twitter-style column of short posts from Klick employees on the right side; financial reports and other business data are lined up on the left. In the main, middle part of the page, Klick employees can start “tickets” that guide a project from origin to completion. Every employee has an iPad, and can use the tablet to check Genome from home or during out-of-office meetings for the latest information.

Genome
lick’s Genome system lets managers track project workflows and alerts them when they need to intervene.

Genome’s most significant attribute, Segal said, is that it is smart. If a Klick employee starts a particular task for the first time, Genome will recommend contacting other employees with experience related to the task, as well as offer a checklist or a library of resources for the worker to draw upon. If a project seems stuck—with a pair of Klick employees engaged in endless communication about it—Genome “notices” and can alert managers to intervene.

“It’s like a set of sensors,” Segal said. “It’s finding those precise teachable moments when we can coach people.”

Segal said that Klick works hard to ensure Genome-overload doesn’t replace email overload with overload of a different kind. That requires resources to keep the system evolving: The company has a team of ten people to build and develop Genome. But Klick isn’t afraid to drop features from the system if they prove counterproductive.

“We call it ‘digital Darwinism,’” he said. “Unless it saves people time, it’s not worth it.”

Timely beauty tips Klick uses Genome to connect employees to each other. Seva—a beauty chain that operates within Walmart stores in nine states—takes a different approach. It uses the iPad 2 as the foundation for a system that combines a customer database with instant messaging and FaceTime video. This lets store managers track stylist activities and keep an eye on what’s happening in the salons.

Van Maniatis
"The only time we're utilizing email, it's a push method of communication. It's a supplement."--Vas Maniatis, Seva

Before the iPad’s launch, workers for the then-tiny company communicated via personal email. As Seva began to expand with franchise locations, though, executives decided they wanted to centralize all the communication—between the store and its customers, between managers and workers, and between headquarters and the franchises. They wanted that information to flow more quickly than email allows.

“We needed something that was very robust,” said Seva founder Vas Maniatis, “but that would allow us to have real-time information, both at the store level and at the remote level.”

Each store has at least two iPads. One is used to sign-in customers when they enter the salon; if the salon is busy at the moment, the customer can shop in Walmart—a text message will be sent from the iPad to the person’s cellphone when a spot opens up. Store managers, if they’re working remotely, can watch their employees via FaceTime—and use Seva’s system to send instant messages to employees if they need help.

“The franchisee can communicate with the store, can monitor and audit the store, and can view the transactions with customers in real time,” Maniatis said.

Instead of sending emails back and forth between the store and central office, the new system allows managers to directly monitor employees and provide immediate feedback. In one case, he said, Seva officials in Chicago noticed that a new Maryland store was underperforming—with fewer repeat visits by customers than comparable stores. Using the iPad’s FaceTime program, home office officials watched each employee perform salon techniques—and immediately gave feedback to get the store back on track.

“It happened impromptu, right then and there,” he said. “We were able, from Chicago, to evaluate their skills in real time—using nothing more than a desktop computer and an iPad.”