While large companies are laying off employees in efforts to keep costs down, many small to medium sized business owners are seeking to avoid this problem from the start. This is being done by enlisting virtual assistants (VA's), self-employed independent contractors who work from home or a small satellite office, and are able to help these clients with administrative support on whatever level is needed.
Contracting yourself out to clients as a virtual assistant can be one of the most profitable ways to become success while working from your home, and the need for qualified VA's isn't going to be shrinking anytime soon.
So, what exactly is a virtual assistant? You'll find a variety of answers to this question, and the answers really depend more on for whom you're working than anything else. The short answer is that, as a virtual assistant, you will be usually be performing administrative functions, and possibly miscellaneous support as needed. You should be equipped with a modern computer, a high-speed internet connection, a fax machine, possibly a dedicated phone line, and probably MS Office software (Excel, Word, Powerpoint, all that fun stuff).
These things will cost some money if you don't already have them, but keep in mind that this one major reason telecommuters are so attractive to business owners. Think about it, suppose you start up a business working from home, and you meet with such success that you need help getting everything done and keeping organized? It's certainly more attractive to find a qualified VA, and get started paying him or her by the hour or by the project, than to invest the time and money into getting more space, furniture, computers, phones, software licences-- you get the idea. Having these things already in place makes you marketable.
Any specialized experience you have or can acquire (medical coding, desktop publishing, transcription, web design and database management are a few examples of things you can learn in a relatively short time) will of course be an asset. It is essential to have a resume or portfolio, and helpful to have a website with a little information about your credentials and experience. You can always hire a work at home webmaster to whip up a small, professional looking site for you at a reasonable rate.
If your organizational skills are good, you can keep yourself on task without direct supervision, and are reasonably comfortable with technology (it really doesn't take too much, there are people making 50K in offices who don't know how to clear a paper jam), you may want to consider gearing up and taking on a client or two.