For a generation of workers who grew up connecting online, striking up a casual workplace conversation is harder than it seems.
Enter Flockd, a startup that provides 3.8-inch-high, dry-erase pyramids that sit on a desk to indicate when a person is available for a chat. The pyramids serve the same function as Gmail colors that indicate when someone is "free" or "busy."
Flockd, which has landed deals to sell its $5 pyramids to companies including a subsidiary of office furniture giant Steelcase, is one of a handful of new firm finding business models in the movement to help plugged-in people unplug.
"While technology is doing amazing things for us in so many ways, we're still human beings, and the real world still exists in analog," said Tony Bacigalupo, co-founder and mayor of five-year-old New Work City, a co-working space that uses Flockd pyramids. "The more we get wrapped up in our online world, the more desire grows for better, healthier, authentic offline real-life interaction."
Josh Auerbach, CFO of betaworks, a Manhattan firm that invests in and helps grow high-tech startups, points to the dozens of e-commerce brands that set up temporary brick-and-mortar "pop-up" shops in Manhattan for the holidays as another example of the trend. Familiar online names including eBay, Etsy and Web-based clothier Everlane have increasingly been doing some of their work offline.
Other companies are organizing intimate gatherings where customers mingle with advertisers. Intended to provide face time for online-only brands, the events also help to bring in more ad revenue.
Shouting over the crowd
"Companies are looking to get noticed, stand out—basically shout over the noise—and right now in-person events and physical spaces are a pretty good way to do that," said Mr. Auerbach.
Digital media firm PureWow, a 23-employee Manhattan company whose lifestyle newsletter, website and social-media outlets attract about 1.5 million 30- to 54-year-old females across the country, has found that events are important to building a sense of community among its members.
The company, which is profitable, recently invited more than 200 Dallas-area bloggers and readers to a launch party that was sponsored by liqueur brand Baileys. The party, which generated a pile of content for the company's site, led to a second Baileys-backed event, this time held in Manhattan with a mix of local entrepreneurs and PureWow readers.
"For us, it's brand awareness," said PureWow CEO Ryan Harwood, who said his company's revenue is in the mid-seven figures. "We're showing our audience that we're real—where they can see our editors and where we see our readers and we can build a bigger sense of community."
Membership for 2012 is up four times over last year.
Combining online and offline
A strategy that combines online and offline might be the most powerful, according to new research from Active Network, a San Diego firm whose Web-based software helps clients such as Bike New York and the New York Stock Exchange organize events. According to a November report, 99% of the 500 consumers surveyed took action offline—such as attending a charity or social event or participating in a sport—as a result of interacting with a Facebook or Twitter connection online.
"The common irony is that people are more active on social networks than in their personal lives," said Kristin Carroll, vice president of corporate and consumer marketing at Active Network. "Within social networks, there is opportunity to motivate people to do things they otherwise wouldn't."
To that end, Flockd's co-founders are debating whether to create a smartphone app that somehow ties in with their pyramids and their Facebook and Twitter feeds. In the meantime, the company is hiring salespeople and hoping to expand into more shared workspaces, high-tech firms and, eventually, public spaces such as coffee shops, universities, hotels and airports.
"The co-working movement is doubling each year," said co-founder Marissa Feinberg, who is also a founder of Green Spaces, an eco-minded co-working space in Manhattan with revenue of under $1 million.
Mr. Bacigalupo says conversation has spiked in his office since the introduction of the pyramids. "What Flockd does is give people a way to sort of easily bump into each other in ways that they might not have otherwise," he said. "It lowers the barrier for people to meet each other."
Correction: PureWow is a digital media firm. The company description was misstated in the summary for an earlier version of this article, published Dec. 19, 2012.