Deirdre Connelly, the North American president of GlaxoSmithKline, helped break ground and plant trees Thursday as the global pharmaceutical giant put down a new corporate footprint in Philadelphia at the Navy Yard.

But once the new building rises from the dirt, Connelly said, she won't have a big corner office with a window of nearby mothballed Navy ships, Lincoln Financial Field, or the Delaware River.

"We have a lot of history in the city of Philadelphia that dates to 1830," she told the assembled corporate executives and city leaders, including Mayor Nutter, before moving on to the future and how the company would operate in its new space.

"I call it the Facebook Generation way. I'm obviously not a Facebook Generation person, but I'm learning a lot from that generation," Connelly said. "That generation tells us they want to have an opportunity to communicate more freely, to make decisions faster, to take into account everyone involved in that decision so we can deliver that value quickly and effectively to the customers we serve."

Connelly, 50, like an entry-level staffer, will work from the open-space tables and workstations that are a key part of plans for the building. The interior is to be open, not broken up by offices and cubicles.

"There is an element of democracy to it," said Christian Bigsby, GSK's senior vice president for worldwide real estate and facilities. He works from GSK's office in North Carolina, which has gone to this type of arrangement.

"I think it's the right thing to do," Connelly said afterward. "It's kind of lonely sometimes when you're in a corner in a big office and it's kind of quiet. When you need quiet, we'll have quiet rooms, if you need to think and analyze.

"But the majority of time will be spent with folks who you depend on to get done a majority of what you need to get done, so I'm really looking forward to it."

Beyond "democracy," Bigsby used the words "neighborhoods" and "community" and even "socialism" in describing the intended workplace atmosphere. But lest anyone start humming "Kumbaya," GlaxoSmithKline remains a very competitive company in an industry that is looking to cut costs and maximize profits amid great turbulence.

GSK will move from Franklin Plaza, where it had too many empty cubicles, to the $80 million facility in 2012 or 2013, having signed a 151/2-year lease.

Real estate is the second biggest cost, after salaries and benefits.

Employees will have drawers for their laptops and personal belongings. Starting the day, they will pick an open spot and begin work. GSK is moving toward a phone system where employees will plug a headset into their computer. Employees are encouraged to move toward electronic filing, to eliminate the need for cabinets. The "change management team" will also help employees find electronic ways to display things such as personal photos or awards.

Connelly said an accidental meeting Thursday morning had reinforced the idea behind the plan and the way to attract smart young people who would help the company make money. After the staff left the Center City building during a planned fire drill, a young employee standing nearby asked if Connelly had a moment because he needed a decision on something. She said go ahead, thereby avoiding time and an e-mail chain involving four people.

"He said, 'This is great. This is what it's going to be like when we're in the Navy Yard,' " Connelly said. Bigsby added that e-mail traffic dropped 50 percent because the recipient was likely within earshot.

Bigsby has done the math on internal GSK real estate: 85 percent is used only 35 percent of the time. The other 65 percent of time is spent in common areas, including conference rooms. GSK imagines "neighborhoods" of 35 to 50 people. It hasn't decided on ratios yet for the Navy Yard facility, but there could be six or eight work stations for every 10 employees.

With employees traveling or off-site or sick or on vacation, Bigsby said, "the chances of everybody showing up at the site on the same day are almost zero."

Contact staff writer David Sell
at 215-854-4506 or dsell@phillynews.com.