Never overlooking little details can help big agencies make great leaps in employee satisfaction, according to experts speaking at the Partnership for Public Service’s 2017 Best Places to Work awards, held Jan. 26.

For example, the Department of Homeland Security won the award for most improvement among large agencies, and Elaine Duke, deputy secretary of DHS, revealed how an employee listening tour of the agency uncovered unresolved problems at all levels, some so small “it was almost embarrassing that we hadn’t addressed them,” she said.

For example, Duke said that one employee stood up during a Q&A to thank her for saying “hi” when passing in the hall. Duke said she was struck by how such a small thing could make such a big difference to employees.

“DHS has never been, to put it gently, at the top of these rankings. But we are working tirelessly to change that,” said Duke. “We have to think big, really getting to those top spots, but we have to act small. Even on the busiest of days we have time to say ‘hi’ to someone we don’t know, we have time to shoot an email that thanks someone or that asks someone a question.”

“They’ve modified the interaction between supervisors and their employees, and they’ve sort of been able to make that a much more personal level of interaction, where there’s two-way communication going back and forth. And quite frankly, that’s where you really move the needle,” said Sean Morris, federal human capital leader at Deloitte, which sponsors the rankings.

The consistency in those personal interactions has paid off for DHS, which increased its employee engagement score by 6.2 points in 2017, according to Morris.

DHS initiated concentrated, employee-centric programs over the last year that helped the agency gain that improvement. “In October, we kicked off DHS leadership year ... an effort to reinforce a culture of leadership throughout the department,” said Duke.

“Our leadership year intends to showcase our leaders of today, while preparing leaders of tomorrow, offering employees of all levels opportunities to enhance their leadership capability.”

Programs that continually push employee satisfaction as a top priority have established NASA at the top of the Partnership for Public Service’s rankings for the past five years. The agency has significantly increased its employee engagement scores consistently for six years.

“They’re unrelenting,” Morris said to Federal Times following the awards presentation. “They could teach commercial industry a thing or two about this.”

The Farm Credit Administration, which ranked third among small agencies and increased its score by 8.7 points between 2016 and 2017, has also benefited from a focus on personal interaction, according to FCA CIO William Hoffman.

“We make a point of being friendly, talking to people and making sure that everybody, top to bottom, is a part of the organization,” Hoffman told Federal Times.

The Best Places to Work rankings are based off of responses to the Office of Personnel Management’s 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.