Two years ago, when Cheryl Richardson found herself in need of office help, she confronted a quandary familiar to owners of home-based businesses: "I didn't like the idea of sharing my home," says Richardson, a business coach based in Newburyport, Mass., "and putting in another desk didn't sit well with me." Why not, suggested a friend, hire a virtual assistant?

As much like sci-fi as it may sound--evoking images of a tireless and devoted cyborg who never takes a coffee break and who systematically compliments you on your appearance--a virtual assistant is simply someone who performs from a remote location such functions as scheduling and correspondence. Stacy Brice, who works for Richardson as well as for another half dozen entrepreneurs, operates from her own home in Cockeysville, Md. "I'm one part mom, one part concierge, one part administrative assistant, and one part secretary," says Brice. Hard numbers aren't easy to come by, but Brice clearly isn't the only virtual assistant out there. "It's a fast-moving trend," says Charles Grantham, president of the Institute for the Study of Distributed Work, based in Walnut Creek, Calif. "We're seeing it pop up all over the place."

Virtual assistants offer several advantages over temporary or part-time workers. Beyond the obvious--no payroll taxes, no workers' comp, no temp-agency commission--virtual assistants tend to be more cost-efficient, charging by the hour. Brice charges $50 an hour but discounts that rate to $35 if clients fork over a $525 monthly retainer. The pay arrangement, plus the distance, tends to clarify the relationship, making it less of a management challenge. "If I have an on-site employee, I've got to be prepared to deal with that person when he or she shows up," says David Goldsmith, a customer-service specialist based in Windermere, Fla. "It's a job, managing an employee."

Brice, who serves as Goldsmith's virtual aide as well, routinely handles for him such tasks as rounding up Japanese business, booking speaking engagements, and identifying Web-site designers. "I just give her a list of things I need done, they get done, and at the end of the month I get a very reasonable bill," Goldsmith says.

Of course, virtual assistants owe their existence to the proliferation of technology that enables them to stay connected: fax machines, E-mail, voice mail, and 24-hour business-support centers. "I have almost immediate access to every type of business equipment I could possibly need," notes Lora Davidek, a virtual assistant based in Westminster, Colo. Davidek's clients, in such far-flung locales as Illinois, Florida, and New Jersey, have found her thanks to the classified ads she placed on relevant Web sites, such as those serving work-at-home mothers. "I'm sure this is going to be a fast-growing profession," notes Debra Stratton, publisher of The Secretary, a trade publication.

Brice thinks so, too. She recently started Assist U, an on-line training program that offers an $800, 16-week course for aspiring virtual assistants. The best candidates, she notes, have already mastered basic skills, such as phone etiquette. But succeeding in this new career, she adds, also requires knowledge in such areas as setting prices, juggling projects, and choosing clients. The first class of graduates were placed in Assist U's on-line registry in late August. But with more than 600 inquiries on her desk from potential clients and students, Brice does have one worry. "This whole thing could get so big," she frets, "that I might outgrow my home office."